February 10, 2007
Access vs. Censorship, Part II: The Deleting Online Predators Act

This is the second of a six-part series on public policy and the trouble the U.S. government has with balancing its role in providing access, on the one hand, and policing content on the other. This part focuses on one of the most prevalent pieces of media restriction legislation in the past year, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA). Part one is available here.

The Deleting Online Predators Act, according to the language of the bill, is aimed "to amend the Communications Act of 1934 to require recipients of universal service support for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial networking websites and chat rooms." A copy of the bill, introduced 09 May 2006, is available here.

The bill calls for prohibiting sites or chat rooms in schools on which students may "easily access or be presented with obscene or indecent material;" "may easily be subject to unlawful sexual advances" [ . . . ]; or "may easily access other material that is harmful to minors," with the same restrictions for libraries. The only caveat is that the site may be used by adults in these spaces or by minors in the accompaniment of an adult for educational purposes. This bill dealt with federally funded institutions only and was created on the heels of a 2003 Supreme Court decision that the 2000 Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was constitutional in requiring libraries to filter sexually explicit materials for minors, as Lisa M. Bowman with Tech News points out.

When the bill went to vote in the House on 27 July 2006, it passed with a 410-15 vote, receiving overwhelming support in both major political parties. At the time, analysts knocked the bill for being vague and playing on current societal fears about the dangers of these sites in order to restrict and control modes of communication. For instance, Marshall Kirkpatrick with the influential Web site TechCrunch wrote on the night the bill was passed in the Senate that the bill "has the potential to impact a huge portion of our readership and the companies we profile on the site. Though the viability of enforcing such a law is open to questions, web services offering collaboration in education are looking seriously endangered" (emphasis his).

Kirkpatrick details what he feels is a disconnect between "those of us who are excited about the incredible potential of web services to enable personal creativity and on-demand global communication" and "the US government's attempts to keep children" from technologies that they are the early adopters of.

Kirkpatrick was not the only influential author in the blogosphere to react passionately to seeing DOPA pass so authoritatively in the House. Declan McCullagh with CNET News wrote that day, "Even though politicians apparently meant to restrict access to MySpace, the definition of off-limits Web sites is so broad the bill would probably sweep in thousands of commercial Web sites that allow people to post profiles, include personal information and allow 'communication among users,'" sites including Amazon, LinkedIn, and other sites that use social networking in some way.

McCullagh voiced accusations that the bill was introduced solely to help drive support for incumbents in an election year, since protection against online predators would be a hot-button issue that could mobilize voter support. He quoted Rep. John Dingell, D-MI, as saying the bill had a "curious smell of partisanship and panic" and that it would be "notorious for its ineffectiveness and, of course, for its political benefits to some of the members hereabout."

Georgia teacher Vicki A. Davis, whose educational blog's response to DOPA was followed by major news outlets, pointed out that the bill could potentially block access to important educational and social resources for students to communicate with professionals and teachers and express themselves with their own Web pages, refusing access to a variety of free sites and free access to those sites and creating a hierarchy of "haves" and "have-nots."

To build off her point, not only would schools that could afford to create their own resources or afford more attention given to monitor student use of these sites be at an advantage with the passing of DOPA, but students who had the resources to still access these tools at home would also have an educational and social advantage over those students who relied on school and/or library resources to access social networks.

Leading social networks scholar and UC-Berkeley doctoral student danah boyd spoke publicly about DOPA as well, particularly her concerns about the narrow definition of the uses of social networking sites. boyd wrote, "Even if its application were restricted solely to MySpace, this legislation assumes that nothing positive can be gained through the socialization that occurs there," pointing out, for instance, how high school students can contact college students to find out more information about potential schools they are thinking of applying to.

boyd also pointed out that the reaction to DOPA was an emotional rather than logical one based on misleading media coverage of online predators, which she identified as having two underlying implications--"1.) all youth are at risk of being stalked and molested because of MySpace; 2.) prohibiting youth from participating on MySpace will stop predators from attacking kids. Both are misleading; neither is true." She emphasizes that sexual abuse is more likely to occur from those a child already knows personally. "Statistically speaking, kids are more at risk at a church picnic or a boy scout outing than they are when they go on MySpace."

boyd joined in a public education campaign with Dr. Henry Jenkins, who is the director of C3, to talk about the uses of MySpace. In a newspaper article I wrote this past summer about the MySpace craze in The Greenville Leader-News in Kentucky, Jenkins was quoted as saying, "When I was growing up, parents would give kids advice about what to do when answering a stranger's call on the telephone. We need to think about MySpace the same way. Parents didn't just not let kids use the telephone."

He went on to say that shutting MySpace out of schools and libraries is akin to "locking the door and leaving kids on their own. If we are really concerned about the safety of kids on MySpace, the stupidest thing to do is lock it from schools. We need to teach kids about it."

Jenkins has continued his public outreach against DOPA, writing at the end of 2006 in the Boston Globe that "DOPA would further divide youth who have 24-7 access to broadband and mobile communications from those whose only access is through public libraries."

Perhaps the most high-profile opponent to DOPA, however, was the American Library Association (ALA), who listed five objections to DOPA:

1.) "The terminology used in DOPA is still overly broad and unclear."
2.) "DOPA still ignores the value of Interactive Web applications."
3.) "Education, not laws blocking access, is the key to safe use of the Internet."[10]
4.) "Local decision-making--not federal law--is the way to solve problem addressed by DOPA."
5.) "DOPA would restrict access to technology in the communities that need public access most."

Howard Rheingold further emphasizes the ALA's third point, writing:

At the same time that emerging media challenge the ability of old institutions to change, I think we have an opportunity today to make use of the natural enthusiasm of today's young digital natives for cultural production as well as consumption, to help them learn to use the media production and distribution technologies now available to them to develop a public voice about issues they care about. Learning to use participatory media to speak and organize about issues might well be the most important citizenship skill that digital natives need to learn if they are going to maintain or revive democratic governance.

Several commentators have emphasized what they feel are the overarching benefits of Web connectivity in social networking groups for children. If the Web is becoming an essential part of many Americans' public and private lives, restricting public access for teens puts significant barriers on ensuring more equal access to online tools for the economically disadvantaged. Further, since many social critics (like journalist Dan Gillmor) are arguing that citizenship itself is becoming redefined by participation in the blogosphere and other socially linked aspects of the Web, it seems essential that teenagers are given places in which to safely access these social tools, with adult resources on the premises.