House Misfires On Internet Safety

silhouette of child over Computer monitor and capitol dome
Last week the House of Representatives passed a well-meaning but ill-conceived piece of Internet safety legislation that could actually make the Internet a more dangerous place for children and teens.

The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), approved Wednesday by an overwhelming margin of 410 to 15, now moves on to the Senate. While it's easy to understand why Congress would approve a bill like this, it is ill-conceived because, rather than "deleting" online predators, it deletes the ability of schools and libraries to determine whether kids can constructively take advantage of social networking and other interactive services that are extremely popular among teens. Maybe the law should be called DOTA (the Deleting Online Teenagers Act)?

As a bit of background, I've been working on Internet safety issues since 1993 when I wrote "Child Safety on the Information Highway" for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I'm on the board of that organization and I also run and and am co-director of BlogSafety is a not-for-profit project that derives funding from social networking sites, including those affected by this legislation.

The bill (H.R. 5319) amends the Communications Act of 1934 "to require recipients of universal service support for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms."

The legislation, said Tim Lordan, Executive Director of the Internet Education Foundation which advises U.S. lawmakers on technology, "lumps social networking sites and chat rooms with previously blocked sites that are obscene or contain child pornography, as if social networking was somehow the same as those horrendous sites."

The bill defines social networking sites as being "offered by a commercial entity; permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information, permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users; elicits highly-personalized information from users; and enables communication among users."

That covers more than just chat and social networking and could force school and library officials to ban a wide range of sites, including and many news sites that allow for user feedback and interaction.

But even if the bill weren't overly broad, it would still be troublesome because it is the wrong – and I would argue a dangerous approach – to Internet safety.

While nearly everyone agrees that Internet predators should be "deleted," this bill doesn't address that issue. Unlike the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which the President signed into law on July 21, DOPA does nothing to strengthen penalties or increase prosecution of criminals who prey on children. Instead, it punishes the potential victims and educational institutions chartered to serve them, by denying access to interactive sites at school and libraries.

It would be like trying to protect children from being injured or killed by drunk drivers by ruling that kids can no longer walk, ride a bike or even ride in a car or bus to school.

Aside from punishing potential victims rather than the perpetrators, the bill doesn't even address the issue where it matters.

If children are going to get into trouble online, chances are it won't be at school. They'll be home, they'll be at a friend's house or they could even be completely away from adult supervision using their mobile phones. Schools and libraries are relatively protected environments where adults are never far away and, for the most part, computers are in public locations that make it difficult for users to hide what they're doing.

If anything, schools and libraries should be encouraging kids to use blogging and social networking services. They have enormous educational potential for such things as writing, interviewing, collaborative research, media literacy, and photography, but even if not used as part of a formal supervised education program, they encourage kids to communicate and reach out to others.