Social Network Sites, Blogs, Wikis Fret Over Proposed Regulation

Librarians, interactive site operators and school officials who fear the Deleting Online Predators Act, which recently cleared the House, are turning their lobbying focus to the Senate.

August 3, 2006

4 Min Read
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Libraries and schools could be required to limit access to certain Web sites if the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), which recently cleared the U.S House of Representatives, moves swiftly through the Senate. Introduced by Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), the measure dubbed H.R. 5319 passed by a 410 to 15 vote last week.

The act covers federal organizations that receive funding for computers and Internet access via the U.S. E-Rate program, primarily schools and libraries. The American Library Association (ALA), which is actively lobbying against the measure, estimates two-thirds of U.S. libraries receive this funding.

"The bill is not an automatic ban, and I hear that word 'ban' being tossed around a lot," Rep. Fitzgerald's press secretary Jeff Urbanchuk said Wednesday. "The bill extends the filter already in place through the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act to social networks."

Social networking sites YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster and others count large numbers of children among their users, though core demographics for those who access sites like MySpace are getting older and the "effects may be less than expected," said eMarketer senior analyst Debra Aho Williamson.

As of May 2006, one-third of MySpace's U.S. users were between the ages of 18 and 34, but 36 percent were between 35 and 54, and nearly 10 percent were 55 or older, according to comScore Media Metrix. The research firm notes that 12- to 17-year olds, an age category filled with controversy for MySpace due to fears of sexual predators, has diminished in importance, falling from 22 percent of the site's users in May 2005 to 17 percent in May 2006.Urbanchuk, confident the bill will pass the Senate, said H.R. 5319 brought the issue of online predators to national debate, and in no way is it the final word. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will have 120 days to define what is meant by "interactive Web sites" or "social network."

That concerns some. "The aim is honorable, but the execution is poor," said Shervin Pishevar, president and chief operating officer at social networking site Freewebs Corp. "In the proposed legislation, the government might as well ban the entire Internet for youth."

Bernadette Murphy, ALA communications director, says in trying to define the term "interactive Web sites" the legislation sweeps up under the umbrella e-mail, blogs, wikis, instant message and any application that facilities two-way communications.

For example, social networking site falls under the broad class of interactive, but it's geared toward organized closed groups, rather than public access.

CollectiveX founder and CEO Clarence Wooten Jr. agrees companies need to protect children because the Internet remains a platform for those who want to do harm, but the DOPA legislation would block every major Web portal because most sites these days have at least one social networking feature. There are other concerns, too. In a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives, the ALA wrote that DOPA would restrict access to technology in communities that need public access most. The ALA claims DOPA, as presently drafted, would deny students and others in schools and libraries in the poorest communities from accessing content and from learning how best to safely manage their own Internet access in consultation with librarians and teachers.

Social networking site founder and CEO Seth Alsbury says the direction of the bill appears scary because the federal government will decide what services are appropriate, and for whom. "Education, not limitation, so shouldn't the schools and libraries educate rather than restrict access," he said. "The social networking sites are tools and it would be far more effective to educate than to eliminate access."But Urbanchuk said the bill also requires the FCC to set up a Web site to educate children and parents. Keeping the parents and teachers as the first line of defense, he explained that parents could give their children permission to access the sites at libraries and schools if they felt comfortable.

"We are in the very early stages of what social networking means, and because of that, it's unlikely we will see action by the end of the year," said Tom Galvin, a Washington, D.C. policy consultant for high-tech companies at 463 Communications. "There's a lot of technology inspired legislation, but Congress doesn't feel like they have a grip yet. They know what they want to accomplish, but they are not sure how to do it."

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