deza: (Offensive library)
In early 2006, Representative Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) presented a bill to the House called the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA. The reasoning behind the bill was fairly simple: since many of the highly-publicized cases of online pedophilic predation involve the use of either Internet chat rooms or social networking sites (i.e. MySpace, Bebo, LiveJournal, etc), then making it harder for kids to access those sites would also make it harder for predators to reach kids. The bill was defeated once, then re-introduced as the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2007 by Representative Mark Kirk (R-IL).

Representative Fitzpatrick and Kirk’s idea is to amend the Communications Act of 1934 (already amended by the 1996 Telecommunications Act) to require schools and libraries to prevent minors from reaching chat rooms and social networking sites. The bill also requires that those same schools and libraries be able to disable the blocking for adult use. The bill makes no provisions for funding the additional blocking software required nor for the additional hours of work involved in evaluating unblocking sites for adult users. The bill would also put any future changes in what sites could be blocked in the hands of the Federal Trade Commission, instead of requiring Congressional involvement. This effectively circumvents the Constitutional Right to Free Speech.

This bit of knee-jerk legislation is one of the most idiotic ideas currently being contemplated by the US Government. The language of what kinds of sites must be blocked is incredibly vague—so much so that any site that provides an opportunity for a user to set up a profile and discuss issues in a forum will be blocked. Say goodbye to Amazon and the other online retailers that allow wishlists and reviews. Don’t try to get information from, SlashDot, CNet podcasts or any other online news source that allows reader feedback, either. Forget about getting your email from Yahoo and GMail, too, as they provide chat functions. Wikipedia is right out as a reference source. Oh, and gamers? All those messageboards will be gone—and so will most of the MMO games. This may not affect those who have the luxury of Internet access in their homes, but the millions of people who rely on the public library for their Internet use will be denied.

The bill completely overlooks the valid educational uses of social networking sites. Forward-thinking teachers have started incorporating blogs and wikis into their curriculum; this would have to stop. Schools that use blogging software to update their webpages would be forced to block themselves. Unlike current filtering applications mandated by CIPA, sites would be blocked because of the types of software running on them, not for content.

The real kicker here is that the 2004 Youth Internet Safety Survey (widely quoted by Rep Fitzpatrick in his original defense of DOPA) has indicated that Internet predation on minors has dropped since the late 90s. This indicates that as kids are getting more Internet savvy, they are learning to recognize and avoid predators on their own.

This bill purports to protect kids in the absence of their parents. Wouldn’t it make more sense to task parents with protecting the kids themselves? How hard is it for parents to monitor the websites their kids are visiting? There are plenty of resources available for parents to use to discuss Internet safety and privacy with their kids—sites like CyberSafety Tips for Parents and Be Safe Online. The true key to protecting kids from Internet predators lies in teaching them what to watch for and what to avoid, not in banning broad categories of websites.

Want to learn more about DOPA? You can track progress of the bill through Congress yourself or sign up for the news alerts from DOPA Watch.

Want a say in dealing with this idiocy? Contact your Congressperson (secondary site here).
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