Court-imposed internet restrictions and their application to criminal defendants used to be a non-issue. In the past few months, though, the U.S. Supreme Court in Packingham v. North Carolina unanimously invalidated a state law banning registered sex offenders from accessing websites that could facilitate direct communications with minors.
Although the majority opinion and concurrence appears to be specifically focused on sex offender restrictions, the evolving communications technology that operates in cyberspace suggests that the ruling may have an impact on attempts to restrict web access for all state and federal criminal defendants, including white collar criminal defendants.
Indeed, Justice Samuel Alito discussed that the statute’s definition of social networking sites would in effect encompass even Amazon, the Washington Post, and WebMD, as all of those sites provide opportunities for visitors to connect with other users, and noted that states were entitled to draft narrower restrictions because of their legitimate interest in thwarting recidivist sex offenders.
The internet as we know it though does not lend itself easily to such containment, for even mainstream sites such as The Washington Post and Amazon might be considered as portals that may be compromised by criminal behavior. The reality is that technology has largely out-paced even our wildest imaginings. One wonders if there might be a future app out there waiting to be developed that would enable defendants to log on and be taken only to “safe” sites, thereby allowing judges to legitimately restrict internet access without violating First Amendment rights.
Perhaps this is a subtle call to action for all those techno geeks out there?!