There are a few inalienable laws of digital product releases, the first of which is surely that nothing is ever exactly what you hoped for. Coming a close second, however, is the inescapable reality that some politician will manage to say that the product will expose children to greater risks from pedophiles. This is a slight variant on the old Jerry Seinfeld bit about every new technology immediately spawning a new sexual behavior, and only slightly less farcical.
In that spirit, here’s a story from The Guardian about the game of the moment, Pokémon Go:
The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, has directed state authorities to prevent nearly 3,000 registered sex offenders now on parole from playing Pokémon Go, in an effort to safeguard children who play.
The state’s department of corrections and community services is making it a condition of supervised release from state prison for all sex offenders. State officials recommended that county probation offices adopt the same policy.
You should read the entire article and come back, but provided you have already done so or are in a rush, here are some of the things you will not find in press reports about this new measure: A single example of predators luring children using Pokémon Go or a detailed explanation of how this measure will be implemented. The closest you get is this rather squirrelly sentence: “A feature of the game that allows users to lure characters or players for a fee to specific locations appears to have the potential to be abused by predators, Cuomo said.” Note the phrasing: “has the potential to be abused.”
For the sake of fairness, let us nevertheless try to give these measures the benefit of the doubt. It is true that Pokémon Go has been used to lure victims of other crimes (read: robbery). There is also something to be said for not waiting until a horrible act has happened before taking action—but what exactly is it?
exclusion from online activities is an increasingly complicated policy
Preemptive defense measures have a certain rhetorical appeal, but also can be used to justify policies in the absence of anything compelling. (See again: no example of Pokémon Go being used in the feared manner has yet to be cited by the policy’s proponents.) While New York’s policy—and that is an exceedingly generous term for a letter sent to Niantic—only affects convicted offenders as opposed to teens, it is still another inglorious installment in the annals of technological paranoia.
(We interrupt this column for a periodic reminder that most sex crimes are not committed by strangers.)
It’s hard to have any sympathy for convicted sex offenders and defending the inalienable right to Pokémon Go is not the hill anyone likely wants to die on. That’s not the point. New York’s reaction in this episode raises interesting questions about how the overlap between augmented reality and the criminal justice system will be handled in the future.
In a world that is overwhelmingly digitized and where a non-negligible portion of sex offender registries are made up of teens punished for sexting, exclusion from online activities is an increasingly complicated policy. How do you balance the importance of punishment and rehabilitation? Or consider state senator Jeff Klein’s idea that “game manufacturers take steps to ensure the virtual Pokémon creatures don’t pop up near offenders’ homes.”
In many states, a variety of laws ensure that sex offenders cannot live near a variety of places, such as schools and parks. Klein, in effect, is proposing extending this logic, which has been met with mixed results, to virtual maps. There are interesting debates to be had about these subjects, but they cannot be had under the auspices of techno-panic. You can keep Pokémon Go from sex offenders, but you can only avoid reckoning with augmented reality’s impact on criminal justice for so long.