WASHINGTON -- Such popular websites as myspace.com and facebook.com became the latest target in a legislative crusade to combat child predators with last the passage July 26 of the Deleting Online Predators Act. Public institutions are already required to block minors' access to websites with obscene content. H.R. 5319 extends that mandate to social networking sites. The bill had overwhelming support in the U.S. House of Representatives -- 410 legislators, including Rep. Bernard Sanders, voted "aye," and just 15 opposed.
However, DOPA has drawn criticism for failing to define what constitutes a social networking site, and for further burdening public institutions. Some of the sharpest objections have focused on what some see as a politically motivated initiative to attract suburban voters in an election year. The U.S. Senate had not drafted a companion bill by the time lawmakers began their summer recess on August 4.
Sponsored by Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), who is up for reelection, DOPA aims at sites that enable users to create personal profiles and communicate with other users. These may include such commonly visited sites as Amazon.com, as well as popular social networking sites. Institutions that receive federal funding through the E-rate program, which offers discounts on technology services, will be required to comply with the DOPA provisions in order to retain that funding.
DOPA is effectively an upgrade of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000. CIPA ties federal funds in the E-rate program to compliance with the law. According to Vermont State Librarian Sybil McShane, the state's public libraries by and large opted out of the E-rate program, "The feeling being," she says, "that access to the Internet should be determined at the local level." Institutions were still able to draw E-rate funds for regular telephone service, since CIPA focused only on Internet access. As a result, she adds, DOPA "wouldn't affect very many public libraries in Vermont."
One big problem with DOPA, however, is that unless online predators are using library and school computers, the bill likely won't affect them, either. "The reality is, there's more threat from the next-door neighbor and the person they know than the online predator," says Elaine Young, a Champlain College professor specializing in Internet marketing. "And [DOPA] clouds that issue."
McShane agrees that the bill's emphasis may be misplaced. "Perhaps a solution has to be an increased penalty or some sort of increased responsibility to prevent predators from using chat rooms, not block libraries from using chat rooms."
Young sees the bill as shortsighted in its view of social networking sites' benefits, particularly to youth. "Think of the power that this gives adolescents to express themselves in ways they can't in their space," she says. "Aren't we better to understand it and learn from it and give them the guidance they need?"
Jessamyn West, a Bethel-based community technology worker and the driving force behind www.librarian.net, sees DOPA's vagueness as problematic. "DOPA's going through without the key parts of it defined," she says. "Once it passes, then we'll define what it is. That's crazy. Why should you accept that from your lawmakers?"
Sanders' support of the measure concerns her, given the Congressman's solid track record on privacy rights and public access to information technology. When viewed against the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157) he introduced in March 2003, his yes vote on DOPA is disappointing.
West and Young see Sanders' vote on DOPA as politically motivated -- just like the over-the-top-title of Fitzpatrick's bill. "It's a political hot button," Young says. "If you don't vote for it, what happens in an election year when your opponent says you voted 'No' on stopping predators on the Web?" Sanders did not return phone calls by press time.
Politics aside, DOPA's detractors are concerned about the bill doing more harm than good by widening the "digital divide." Says Young, "If a student has a high socioeconomic background, there's a better shot that they have Internet access, that they can take advantage of the technology." Block that in the public arena, she adds, and suddenly "here's a whole group of people not being trained how to use this.''
And it's not just about kids, McShane notes. Adults also use public libraries to access social networking sites -- and for myriad reasons, such as to combat loneliness or to find support groups for illnesses. "This would essentially require adults to say, 'Dear librarian, please unlock the computer so I can get access to my chat room," she says. "Many people would feel awkward about asking for that."
With Congress in recess and the Senate yet to take up DOPA, some critics find solace in the momentary holding pattern. Looking down the road, though, McShane views bills like CIPA and DOPA as part of a troubling trend. "I just hope that everything's not going to be decided at the federal level," she says, "and that we'll be able to decide based on our community needs."
Young would just like to know what types of sites will qualify for DOPA scrutiny. "I have a myspace account," she says. "It has pictures of me. It has pictures of my cats. Is that too personal?"