Update: On July 27, the House voted 410-15 in favor of the Deleting Online Predators Act. Having passed in the House, the bill now goes to the Senate. Hopefully, DOPA will not be rushed through the Senate as it was in the House, giving Senators time to think beyond the bill’s name and understand its true implications.
The Deleting Online Predators Act would do little to make the internet a safer space for minors, while posing new threats to education and free speech. The bill, which seeks to limit access to “commercial social networking websites and chatrooms,” 1 is part of a series of legislation proposed by the Suburban Caucus — a newly formed group of Republican representatives who are focused on addressing the concerns of suburban voters. 2 News stories about social networking sites such as MySpace have generated a wave of panic in recent months. With the November elections in mind, the Representative Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA) proposed DOPA, a piece of legislation that should raise red flags for all First Amendment advocates. Even so, the bill could be very difficult to oppose, since at first glance it makes supporters appear as pro-child and pro-family, and opponents could be smeared as being sympathetic to sexual predators.
Of chief concern to educators and parents is that DOPA would result in the blocking of technologies that teachers often use – and may increasingly put to good use – as educational tools, especially for collaborative and interactive learning. Applications that would be blocked include blogs that allow discussion to continue outside of the classroom and give students the opportunity to practice written communication; “wikis” that classes can create together as informational resources; and Web.CT, an application often used in distance learning or for class forums. There are numerous examples of websites that would be blocked under DOPA that have provided students with valuable opportunities. In a New Jersey school, students participated in an online discussion with the author of The Secret Life of Bees, 3 and in 7 countries and 49 states students participated in an online field trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park during which they could communicate with scientists, park guides, First Lady Laura Bush, and one another. 4
Even if DOPA’s language could be written so that it targeted only sites used primarily for social networking, the bill would still deprive children of useful opportunities for communication and learning, and would block constitutionally protected speech. Danah Boyd, Ph.D student at the University of California at Berkley School of Information, explains, “By giving youth access to a public of their peers, MySpace provides a fertile ground for identity development and cultural integration.” 5 Social networking sites can offer support networks, forums for expression, and also the opportunity for youth to be in contact with diverse populations. These sites also allow teens to develop skills that will be important in their adult lives. Beth Yoke, executive director of the American Library Services Association’s Young Adult Library Services, testified before Congress that “as the corporate, professional, and civic use of interactive Web applications grows, there is an increasing need for today’s young people to be prepared to thrive in a work atmosphere where meetings take place online, where e-business is a driving force behind the world economy, and where online networks are essential communication tools. This is exactly what kids must be ready for: a professional environment where only the web-savvy thrive.” 6
Especially troubling, then, is the way that DOPA would disproportionately affect students of different economic backgrounds. Schools and libraries that could afford to give up federal E-rate funds would not be compelled to block websites with mechanisms for communication, while poorer schools and libraries could not. In the very neighborhoods where students often do not have computers in their own home, they would be denied access to social networking websites at schools and in libraries. Parry Aftab, executive director of the website WiredSafety, contends, “The single greatest risk our children face in connection with the Internet is being denied access.” 7 Under DOPA, many students, especially those in poorer neighborhoods, would be unable to participate in online communications websites and to learn the skills that come from use of such sites, expanding what Henry Jenkins, co-director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, calls the “participation gap.” 8
Even given the benefits of these social networking sites, it is understandable that parents are concerned about their children’s safety on sites that make it easy for youth to communicate with strangers. The good news, then, is that when it comes to social networking sites there does not have to be a trade off between security on the one hand, and education and expression on the other. Like all other public spaces, websites such as MySpace do pose real risks, though, as Boyd has noted, “Statistically speaking, kids are more at risk at a church picnic or boy scout outing than they are when they go on MySpace.” 9 The risks implicit in social networking sites, however small they may be, are all the more reason to allow access to these sites in libraries and schools where, as Yoke says, students develop information literacy skills including learning how to use the internet safely.
When it comes to internet safety, internet literacy education is much more effective than blocking access, and it promotes, rather than undermines, minors’ First Amendment rights. If DOPA is passed, most youth will probably still find ways to access social networking sites, but they may do so more privately and secretively, and will not be able to benefit from internet safety education. According to Jenkins, DOPA “does nothing to help kids confront the challenges of interacting with online social communities; rather, it allows teachers and librarians to abdicate their responsibility to educate young people about what is becoming a significant aspect of their everyday lives.” 10
In the past, children learned how to respond to strangers they encountered in physical public spaces. Now, they must also learn how to respond to strangers in digital spaces. As an internet safety guide developed by the Baltimore County Public Schools and the Baltimore County Public Library explains, ”Even if every piece of technology protection available is used, unless your children know what to expect and how to react when they run into something undesirable online, they are at risk. Arming them well means teaching them well.” 11 Internet safety education is especially important in schools and libraries because so many parents do not understand how to use the internet as well as their children, and thus have a hard time helping their kids learn to navigate the internet safely.
If passed, DOPA will amend the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a 2000 law that led libraries and schools receiving Federal E-rate discounts to install filtering technology. These filters, intended to block obscenity, child pornography, and other material harmful to minors, also block constitutionally protected and valuable speech, while failing to block some obscene websites. In a similar way, DOPA threatens free speech and education online, while doing little to deter online predators.
1 — http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:h.r.05319:
2 — http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6337058.html
3 — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deleting_Online_Predators_Act
4 — http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Hearings/07112006hearing1974/Yoke.pdf
5 — http://www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html
6 — http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Hearings/07112006hearing1974/Yoke.pdf
7 — http://www.wiredkids.org/resources/documents/pdf/parentingonline.pdf
8 — http://www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html
9 — http://www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html
10 — http://www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html
11 — http://www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html
– Deleting Online Predators Act (5/9/06)
– NEW: DOPA Dies on the Vine (12/29/2006) – The end of 2006 also marks the end of the current congressional session in the House and Senate, closing the door on the Deleting Online Predators Act. Let’s take a look at why this legislation, which passed overwhelmingly in the House this summer, died such a slow death.
– Young Adult Library Services Association Blog (10/01/2006) – Each day on YALSA's blog will be a new post about a different way that social networking technologies can be used with youth in a positive, educational way in libraries, schools and homes.
– MySpace.com is facing a new threat on Capitol Hill (CNET News, 5/11/06)
– No Space for My Space? (Business Week, 5/12/06)
– ALA Opposes Deleting Online Predators Act, (ALA, 5/15/06)
– Discussion: MySpace and Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), (MIT News Office, 5/24/06)
– We Don't Need No Tech Control by Brian Kenney (School Library Journal.com, 6/1/06)
– University lifts Facebook ban for student athletes (SPLC, 7/10/06) OHIO — Kent State University has reversed an order that would have required all student athletes at the school to delete their Facebook.com profiles by Aug. 1.
– Video-sharing sites raise concerns over crude clips (AP, 7/10/06) The explosion in online video-sharing sites, where clips of any nature can be easily uploaded for the world to see, has become the latest challenge for parents trying to protect their children and for Web sites coping with obscene submittals.
– MySpace may face legislative crackdown (CNET News.com, 7/11/06) Politicians on Tuesday accused MySpace.com and other social-networking sites of failing to protect minors from sexual predators and other malign influences and said a legislative crackdown may be necessary.