The campaign to crowd out predators from MySpace.com is gathering steam in Washington. House of Representatives lawmakers proposed a bill on May 9 that would block access to social networks and Internet chat rooms in most federally funded schools and libraries.
Social networks such as MySpace (NWS) and Facebook let users to create an online profile, often including photos and blogs, for sharing and making friends. Phenomenally popular, these sites have attracted criticism for making it easier for predators to contact teens and children.
OFF LIMITS. The legislation is aimed at "protecting children from terrible individuals who would aim to use Facebook and MySpace to harm young children," says Michael Conallen, chief of staff to Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who sponsored the bill. The idea? Keeping kids and teens off potentially dangerous sites, at least on public school and library time -- not to mention keeping would-be offenders from using library terminals for nefarious deeds.
But even though the bill is in early stages and almost certainly will change as it wends through Congress, it's already drawing fire from Internet companies and even groups whose very aim is to keep kids safe on the Net.
For starters, it's got too general a definition of sites that should be banned, says Markham Erickson, general council of the Net Coalition, a Washington lobby representing Internet companies. The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) defines the restricted areas as those that allow "users to create Web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users" and offer "a mechanism of communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, e-mail, or instant messenger."
GOODBYE, WEB 2.0. That could rule out content from any number of Internet companies, including Yahoo! (YHOO) and Google (GOOG). What's more, DOPA would prohibit sites that enable users to create their own content and share it. That covers a wide swath of the online world, known colloquially as Web 2.0, where users actively create everything from blogs to videos to news-page collections.
The proposed legislation is "going to have to be narrowed," Erickson says. While it's important to protect children from predators, laws should not inflict the "collateral damage" of preventing Internet use, he says.
This isn't the first time lawmakers have tried to use legislation to foster children's safety online. In 2000 President Clinton signed a law that would filter obscene materials from public schools and libraries. The difference is that DOPA would require blocking access to the social networks themselves, not just inappropriate pages.
FEAR MONGERING. Another problem with DOPA is that it may do little to actually ensure safety, says Anne Collier, co-founder of BlogSafety.com, a site promoting safe Internet use. Sure, it limits access for kids who don't have a computer at home, but for the most part, schools and libraries are "secondary" venues for kid computing, she notes. Internet protection is a "moving target," and social networking is evolving more quickly than the legislation aimed at regulating it, she says. "I don't think lawmakers have had a lot of time to think about the implications of Web 2.0," and they are indulging in "fear mongering," Collier says.
Conallen, of Fitzpatrick's office, says that the bill is intended as "just a start" for shielding kids when they're away from home supervision. The bill also calls for the Federal Trade Commission to put out a "consumer alert" about how social networks can be exploited.
It's early to gauge the bill's chances of passage. The sponsor and all eight co-sponsors are Republicans, but the issue could win support from both parties. What pol isn't for keeping kids safe, especially in an election year?
DEMS' RESPONSE. Democrats, including the attorneys general of Connecticut and Massachusetts, have called on MySpace to better protect children. Measures that have been called for include higher age requirements and tougher age verification. Recently Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called for site-blocking software, freely downloadable through MySpace, to be more prominently displayed (see BW Online, 3/06/06, "Making MySpace Safe for Kids").
And the social networks have also taken steps to shield users from unwelcome and often illegal attention (see BW Online, 4/11/06, "From MySpace to Safer Space?"). A statement from Rick Lane, vice-president for government affairs at MySpace parent News Corporation (NWS), doesn't address DOPA specifically but says the network "has been working collaboratively on security and safety issues with an array of government agencies, law enforcement and educational groups."