Politics, Safety, Technology

If all goes well for him this week, Texas Rep. Nick Lampson will secure House approval of two bills aimed at curbing crimes against children and restore some credibility to a lawmakers’ group criticized during last year’s congressional page scandal. Lampson, a suburban Houston Democrat, expects votes this week on bills authorizing a $30 million increase in the budget for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and toughening sanctions against Internet service providers that fail to report users possibly committing crimes against children through cyberspace.

“The playgrounds of yesterday are becoming the Internet sites of today. Kids are inside on their little computers instead of playing cops and robbers outside, and they are getting all kinds of invitations to do things,” Lampson said.

The bills should easily pass with other legislation considered non-controversial on Wednesday. But their approval will be key for Lampson and other members of the House Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus who have had to quell some fallout from Congress’ failure to deal promptly with its own child cyber solicitation scandal.

Former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., resigned in Sept. 2006 after his sexually explicit computer messages to teenage congressional pages were exposed. Several Republican leaders were criticized for their handling of reports of the messages.

Lampson founded the congressional Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus and Foley was one of its original members. Lampson lost re-election in 2004 and returned to Congress in 2007, after the Foley scandal.

When he returned, Lampson re-created the caucus, knowing the group had some credibility problems.

“It had a big impact on the caucus,” said Lampson, the caucus co-chair. “We had to pick up the pieces of this and find lots of new interest.”

Lampson has made the issue of crimes against children a legislative priority since Laura Kate Smither, 12, of Friendswood, went missing in 1997 and was found murdered almost three weeks later. No one has been charged in the case.

Lampson hopes one of his bills will make a dent in Internet solicitations, raising fines on Internet service providers who fail to report child exploitation via the Internet. First time offenses would triple to $150,000 per incident, per day and second offenses would double to $300,000 per incident, per day.

“We are not trying to make these (Internet providers) spies on what they put out there, but there are plenty of ways information can be gleaned from what you see on the Internet and if that is illegal we want it reported to law enforcement,” Lampson said.

Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said 95 percent of Internet providers already make such reports.

Meanwhile the center’s work has exploded. Allen said it expects to handle about 110,000 or more reports to the congressionally mandated CyberTipline, begun in 1998. That’s up from 3,500 in the first year.

“There’s a lot going on. The problem is … the sheer numbers of offenders, the number of people using the Internet and using content to access kids is so much greater than many of us thought it was. It really is a huge problem,” Allen said.

*Originally published by ABC13 on 12/03/07