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No deadbeats on the Web

Published Sep. 16, 2005

President Clinton wants to use the Internet to crack down on deadbeat parents. It's a bad idea, for many reasons. Privacy isn't one of them.

Clinton pitched the idea earlier this week, while campaigning in Denver. He praised Colorado for publishing a list of "deadbeat dads" on the Internet, and urged other states to follow suit.

But the idea _ assuredly hip, this election year _ stands little chance of cutting into the $35-billion deadbeat industry, and may complicate federal efforts to take a more aggressive role in forcing parents to meet their responsibilities.

Colorado becomes the 20th state linked to a federal Internet site. A home page on the World Wide Web, maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services, links computer users to the name, photograph and whereabouts of child support violators throughout the country. The goal: Shame parents into meeting their financial obligations.

But however well-intentioned, the plan is besieged with problems over accuracy, security and selective enforcement. How often will the Web sites be updated? What about cases where delinquent payments were caused by illness, unemployment or custody disputes? Even a complete list is suspect, because government databases are generally found to have error rates of between 20 and 30 percent.

Florida unplugged its nascent Web site for some of these very reasons. The state Department of Revenue put the names of 10,000 deadbeat parents on the Internet in November. But Florida's major newspapers wouldn't publicize the names, because of concerns over accuracy and random enforcement.

The Internet could become useful to law enforcement, in much the same way that television dramas and post office posters have helped locate transient felons.

But Web technology is still relatively new, with wide opportunity for abuse. Images and text can easily be scanned, captured or manipulated. Nothing could stop a hacker from turning an unsuspecting parent (or boss, or political opponent) into a worldwide target of humiliation and scorn.

Don't oversell the Internet at the expense of brick-and-mortar ideas. Clinton should be rewarded with speedy approval for his plan to toughen federal child support laws, especially since a third of all violations occur when a parent crosses state lines to avoid payment or prosecution. States also should look at the $200,000 Virginia will spend this year on community forums aimed at keeping fathers from leaving home in the first place.