Should the government be restricting the Web sites we surf? Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick thinks so. According to a news report yesterday, he and fellow Republicans want to extend federal laws that will prevent minors from accessing social-networking sites, such as LiveJournal.com and Myspace.com, from schools and libraries. Such legislation, though, will likely ban a broad spectrum of Web sites including gaming sites, search engines, and even corporate-information sites, all of which will or have adopted social networking technologies as a means of developing their own user communities.
The problem stems from how the legislation defines social networking sites. The sites are commercially operated sites that allow minors to create publicly accessible, web pages or profiles providing personal information and enabling those users to communicate via chat rooms, email or instant messaging.
As an Orthodox Jew with young children, I can deeply empathize with legislators' interest in protecting the public from Internet threats. It's only natural to want to protect youngsters from the risks posed by the Internet. In fact, there are many in Orthodox communities who've gone so far as to even ban the Internet out right. But if we are going to provide Internet access, then the right approach to filtering the Internet isn't by legislating questionable barriers, but through a two-step process of education and consumer action. Parents must educate their children in the upbeat, positive, and, yes, even fun aspects of their own value system that will encourage them to conduct themselves appropriately whether online or in public.
Part of that education must also include an understanding of the risks that the Internet poses. Just as we've all taught our youngsters not to speak strange people so too we need to educate them about taking the same precautions online.
At the same time, they should take consumer action against inappropriate Web sites. The Internet is a wonderful place to meet and organize. Teenagers use those capabilities to meet one another. Parents should do the same and use the power of sites like myspace.com for social change.