News that a former Mountie has been charged with "child luring" using the website Nexopia is bound to draw more public criticism to a site already under fire.
In November of last year, the popular youth discussion website made news when four Edmonton teens were arrested for plotting a gang-related murder on the website's forums.
By then, Nexopia had already been vilified by media, school administrators and parents as a haven for pedophiles and child molesters. Now comes the news that Adam Jonathan Clarke, 23, allegedly used a police computer to visit Nexopia chat rooms and try to arrange meetings with two children under the age of 18.
Supporters of the website feel the blame is misplaced. Nexopia, they say, is just an entity within the internet medium, and the medium itself, not Nexopia, promotes the dangers.
'Not at fault'
Detective Randy Wickins of the Edmonton Integrated Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit believes that ignorance is the root of negative feelings towards the website. "Most people don't understand what Nexopia is and what they're all about, and what the real problems for kids are online."
The real danger, he said, is that "just because it's the internet," youth can communicate with "virtually anyone, and that 'anyone' includes good people and bad people." Nexopia, he said, is "absolutely not" at fault for the crimes that surface there.
Users and moderators agree. Rachel Braeuer, a user for more than two years, noted, "A computer is not a replacement for a parent," adding that if parents fail to teach their children about "the risks of the world, it's not Nexopia's, or any other internet community's job to look out for you."
Some critics finger Nexopia for the high number of Nexopia-related criminal charges. Sexual predators often surface on Nexopia, and arrest rates are higher for Nexopia-linked crimes than for any other website.
While this appears to translate to a greater inherent risk on the site, Nexopia owner Timo Ewalds argues that it indicates the opposite. Ewalds attributes the high arrest numbers to the website's extensive moderating system and its strong relationship with local police. Most of the Nexopia-related arrests are originally reported to police by Nexopia moderators themselves.
Such was the case in Nexopia's November gang incident. A longstanding rivalry between two Edmonton gangs was documented in a Nexopia forum. When 18-year-old Shivani Nanda and three friends posted a homicidal chat on the website, moderators found the conversation and reported it to police. As a result, the conspirators were caught and charged.
Helping to solve cases
Nexopia moderators and users have helped police on numerous cases, including locating several runaway children, tracking a 13-year-old girl courting older men, and reporting online child sexual assault. Moderators are largely responsible for discovering the online activities of the Langley RCMP officer recently charged with child luring.
What's more, Nexopia may be playing a positive role in society, saving lives. Moderators caught two users overdosing on drugs and reported to police before the youths died. And if the recent homicide conspirators had not been caught, Edmonton might be mourning the death of a high school student.
Though crime sometimes surfaces on Nexopia, it originates elsewhere, said site owner Timo Ewalds. "The vast majority of the conversations here are between real life friends." Teens today use internet forums like older generations used the telephone. "The biggest difference…is that here it is documented," observed Ewalds.
"That is both good and bad. It [criminal activity] can be tracked, reported, and proven, but can also lead to some bad publicity...Now that it is better documented, they blame the documentation medium instead of the actual cause."
Stalked on first day
Some remain unconvinced. Pedophiles are drawn to the site, and users seeking to make friends are easy targets for sexual predators -- especially in a medium where, to quote a teen user 'mcbee,' "[the way] someone seems from their typed-out posts and MSN chat is not necessarily how they will act in real life at all. Within my first 24 hours on the site, I was contacted by a Burnaby man who claimed to be 24 years old and later confessed to have lied about his age."
Cpl. Cate Galliford of the British Columbia ICE Unit remains entirely convinced of the site's danger. "It's fairly common that someone who has been brought to [ICE's] attention through other means [including tips, pornography purchases and customs reports on DVD or magazine shipments] is then linked to a Nexopia call [about sexual predation]," she said. In those cases, Nexopia predators go unchecked until a preponderance of evidence is accrued from other sources.
Ewalds agreed that it would be "impossible" to read every post in every thread, when tens of thousands are posted every day, but he was confident that the site is doing everything possible to minimize the risks.
Detective Wickins doesn't publicly support or denounce the site, but is impressed with Nexopia's moderating efforts. Nexopia is the only website he knows of that employs an extensive moderating and police-reporting system to deal with abuses and complaints. "I think they're fairly responsible with what they're doing."
Teens counselling teens
Responsibility is trickling down from the moderators to the teen users themselves. Nexopia forums include numerous conversations educating users about risks and risk management. Advice is rampant on the website, counselling teens against meeting new 'Nex friends' alone in poorly lit, isolated locations. Youth learn from each other that meetings must be conducted responsibly.
"Meeting people through Nexopia isn't even the problem," explained 'Frankxanders,' "being a moron about it is." He elaborated that of "at least a dozen" Nexopia friends he has met in person, none has posed a threat to his safety. But he never arranged meetings without taking the previously mentioned precautions, bringing friends along for security and meeting at malls or arcades.
The issue of Nexopia's value or danger is unlikely to be resolved soon, however. Proponents and opponents are increasingly polarized, but, as Wickins noted, "They [Nexopia] are not breaking the law." Message carriers rarely are.
Kendyl Salcito is on staff at The Tyee.