Can you take away Internet privileges for life?

Police Blotter: Internet banAs a parent, I'm well aware that there are times when a certain punishment fits the crime, and there are other times when all logic goes out of the equation, and the punishment that's dished out is way overboard. This is exactly what happened when Daniel Voelker, a 35-year-old Pennsylvania resident, was not only given a prison sentence, but the conditions of his supervised release also specified that he could no longer use computer equipment — for life! Check out the article on "Police Blotter: Court overturns man's Net ban for life."

So, what exactly did this guy do?

Daniel Voelker briefly exposed the naked rear end of his 3-year-old daughter over a Webcam. During a subsequent search of Voelker's home, the FBI claims to have found computer files containing child pornography. Voelker pleaded guilty to receiving material depicting the sexual exploitation of a minor and was sentenced to 5 years and 11 months in prison.

Once again, as a parent, I'm sickened by child pornography, and I have to wonder if this sentence is truly enough. Obviously, the judge didn't think so...

What makes this case unique are two special conditions the judge imposed on him that would remain in effect until his death. Specifically, one of the permanent conditions of supervised release is: "The defendant is prohibited from accessing any computer equipment or any 'online' computer service at any location, including employment or education. This includes, but is not limited to, any Internet service provider, bulletin board system, or any other public or private computer network." A second permanent condition bars him from possessing "sexually explicit" books, movies, or video games.

Sure, there are probably a few people who would "Hoorah!" this verdict, but how realistic is it? Internet cafes, libraries, hotels... there are so many public places where people can access the Internet that it would be virtually impossible to keep someone from getting online unless they were locked up.

Daniel Voelker appealed the sentence, and a three-judge panel of 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia unanimously threw out the previous ruling that permanently banned his Internet use.

This does not, of course, mean that the district court may not impose some kind of restriction on Voelker's computer use and Internet access on remand. However, any such restrictions must be...appropriately tailored and impose no greater restriction on Voelker's liberty than necessary.

I admit that I've been a little harsh in doling out my son's consequences in the past: "I'm never going to take you to the movies again," "That's the last time you'll ever be allowed to have a friend over," and "No TV, no games, no toys, no books, no going outside, no birthday..." Just like you can't keep someone off the Internet (without 24/7 lockdown), it's impossible to take away someone's birthday. Come on — let's keep it real. In the case of Daniel Voelker, what do you think a fair and yet realistic sentence would be for his type of offense? Join the discussion.


Sonja Thompson has worked for TechRepublic since October of 1999. She is currently a Senior Editor and the host of the several blogs.

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