A bill that would create a special internet domain for children’s web sites passed a House committee April 10, but only after lawmakers added more stringent rules for the kinds of sites that would qualify.

Lawmakers pitched the bill as another way to protect children from accessing inappropriate material online, but some educators questioned how effective such a measure would be.

The bill, called the Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002 (H.R. 3833), aims to develop a second-level internet domain within the United States country code that would offer material geared toward children, while shielding them from harmful material online.

The new internet domain would mean children’s web site addresses would end in “.kids.us.” A group such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, for example, would change its web address from www.bgca.org to www.bgca.kids.us.

Web sites using this domain would become a “green-light area” for kids online, like the children’s section of a library. Dot-kids web sites would contain content appropriate only for children under 13.

The bill, which has about a dozen co-sponsors, requires content standards to be established for dot-kids web sites. It also requires a written agreement from each web site operator that ensures its web site meets these standards, procedures for enforcing compliance, a process for removing web sites that conflict with the rules, and a process so web site operators can resolve disputes impartially.

NeuStar Inc., which has a contract with the Commerce Department to administer top-level internet domain names, would manage the dot-kids domain.

The bill’s most recent amendments add measures to prevent children from being targeted or exploited online. The amendments ban chat rooms, eMail services, and hyperlinks that take users away from dot-kids web sites.

“The whole purpose of dot-kids is to create a safe place on the internet for children, specifically young children,” said Steve Tomaszewski, press secretary for Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who introduced the bill March 4 along with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. “By banning the chat rooms and eMail, you are taking away the ability for people to prey upon young users.”

Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Project of the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education, said the main problem with this approach “is that a dot-kids domain will rapidly become dot-Kids-R-Us.”

Companies marketing to children “use the same techniques as sexual predators,” she said. “They establish relationships with children for the purpose of convincing [them] to engage in specific behavior. Far too many parents will think this is a ‘safe’ location for their children, not recognizing what companies are doing.”

Anyone—including companies or private citizens—would be able to register a dot-kids web site, as long as they meet the bill’s requirements. “You can’t prohibit anyone from having a dot-kids site, as long as their material is suitable for children,” said Tomaszewski.

From a school perspective, Willard said the bill doesn’t facilitate access to high-quality educational resources: “What we desperately need is a vehicle to establish a safe environment for children to access good-quality educational sites that are not seeking to promote products.”

Bob Moore, executive director of IT services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, said he doesn’t think a dot-kids domain is a practical solution to protecting students when online.

“I suppose it would be effective if kids are truly locked out of other domains, but I see that as unworkable in schools,” Moore said. “Our students use resources in dot-com, dot-edu, dot-net., dot-org, and other [domains]. Are all of those content providers going to make their content available for dot-kids?”

Last year, lawmakers wanted the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers—which is responsible for making top-level domain decisions—to create a top-level domain “.kids,” similar to dot-com or dot-org.

But Japan, China, and some European countries were opposed to the idea of the United States making the rules for the internet, so lawmakers opted to create a dot-kids domain within the United States country code instead.

Related links:
Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c107:H.R.3833