Responding to concerns about online child safety, a U.S. congressman has proposed a bill restricting the use of social networking web sites such as MySpace.com to persons 18 or older. The bill also would require educators to block students’ access to these sites from school computers. But critics of the legislation, including several tech-savvy educators, say the bill is an overreaction that would prohibit students from taking advantage of the educational benefits possible in this evolving form of online communication.

Called the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, or DOPA, the bill–introduced by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.–is intended to keep online predators from contacting children through social networking web sites. Fitzpatrick reportedly conceived of the bill after receiving complaints from parents and educators concerned about the use of social networking sites by online predators to lure children.

The legislation would force any school or library that receives government funding to block access to any web site that “allows users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users, and offers a mechanism for communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, eMail, or instant messenger.” The bill, which contends these resources expose students to obscene and objectionable materials available on the sites of other users, also seeks to limit access to personal networking web sites to people who are 18 or older.

In addition, DOPA would require the Federal Communications Commission to form an advisory board to discuss the problem of personal networking web sites. The Federal Trade Commission would consult the board and subsequently create a web site that includes a “distinctive, uniform resource locator” that parents, teachers, school officials, and others could use to view a list of commercial sites that have been found to permit easy access to children by predators. The site also would contain information on web safety for kids.

Despite the bill’s purportedly good intentions, many educators say its far-reaching language would prohibit classroom teachers from creating lessons that explore the benefits of social networking. Instead of banning outright the use of such technologies in the classroom, critics of the bill contend, a more reasonable approach would be for educators to teach students how to use these resources safely and responsibly, while leaving the decision whether to block access to these sites at school to local administrators.

“[Such legislation] will take away our responsibility of teaching students the educational benefits of such technology and how it can be used in responsible and worthwhile ways,” said Ann Davis, instructional technology specialist at the Georgia State University College of Education and a regular contributor to eSchool News Online’s Ed-Tech Insider blog.

“The ability to make connections and share ideas and information is essential for learning,” Davis continued. “We cannot afford to be isolated in our solitary classrooms. Actually, I believe it will make our children less safe, as we educators need to be educating them about the dangers online, rather than being forced to bury our heads in the sand and just pretending they don’t exist. Banning the use of personal networking sites is a knee-jerk reaction to problems in our society.”

Sites like MySpace.com and Xanga.com allow users to create personal web sites to which other users have access, depending on the level of access the user permits to others. They also allow instant messaging, chat-room activity, and blogging, increasing the ways in which users can communicate with each other. Proponents say the wildly popular sites open up new opportunities for communication and self-expression among teens and adults.

But Fitzpatrick said these sites also give predatory adults the opportunity to stalk and, in some cases, meet with naïve teens. By signing up for and using social networking sites, he said, pedophiles have coerced the full names, locations, and other personally identifiable details out of countless unsuspecting children.

In a press release, Fitzpatrick discussed his reasons for proposing the bill.

“Sites like MySpace and Facebook have opened the door to a new online community of social networks between friends, students, and colleagues,” Fitzpatrick said. “However, this new technology has become a feeding ground for child predators who use these sites as just another way to do our children harm.”

As the father of six children, Fitzpatrick said, he hears about the increasing popularity of sites such as MySpace on a daily basis.

“The majority of these networking sites lack proper controls to protect their younger users,” he said. “Also, many parents lack the resources to protect their children from online predators. My legislation seeks to change that.”

In an interview with eSchool News, Fitzpatrick’s chief of staff, Michael Conallen, said the congressman does not seek to vilify MySpace or other social networking sites, but is simply interested in protecting children from “very bad individuals who would use [these sites] to contact young children and potentially do them harm.”

“A recent Department of Justice study indicated that one in five children who use the internet receive[s] an unwanted sexual solicitation,” Conallen said. “MySpace has become a phenomenally popular web site, virtually overnight. There are documented reports throughout the country of child predators contacting children through MySpace. This is a new and evolving problem that needed to be addressed. When CIPA [the Children’s Internet Protection Act] was put in place, it didn’t exist.”

President Clinton signed CIPA into law in 2000. Under the law, all schools and libraries receiving federal technology funding must block students’ access to offensive online content and provide proof to the federal government that they have an internet-safety program in place.

“We do not seek to prohibit the use of MySpace. If a parent decides to allow [his or her] children to use MySpace at home or to monitor their use of MySpace, that is fine,” Conallen said. “It is impossible for library personnel or teachers to monitor students all the time and make sure they’re safe. Where there is public [internet] access by young people … the functionality of that site needs to be filtered on those computers to protect children.”

Not everyone agrees with the restrictions that would come with such legislation.

Lynn Bradley, director of the American Library Association’s government relations office, said her organization was “very disappointed” in the bill and is encouraging its members to write to Fitzpatrick in protest.

“The wholesale blockage of [personal networking web sites] is like using a water hose to brush your teeth,” Bradley said. “It doesn’t allow students and library users–the minors affected by this bill–to be able to use the functionality of these programs for educational purposes. It’s overwhelming. These internet resources can be used for educational and institutional purposes.”

By enforcing the legislation, Bradley said, schools would restrict teachers’ ability to use social-networking technology for bona-fide educational purposes.

“We’re concerned that distance-learning programs [which rely on many of the same functionalities that would be limited under the bill] could be affected,” Bradley said. “Rural schools have increasingly started to rely on distance learning to supplement their curricula. It would appear to us on reading this bill that [many distance-learning programs] would be swept up into the blockage.”

Conallen said there is a provision in the bill that allows for educational use.

“The objective is not to limit students’ ability to learn on the internet,” Conallen said. “The objective is to protect them from child predators who are using sites like MySpace to harm kids.”

Conallen said his boss hopes the bill will start a conversation about how to protect children from the dark side of internet. If there is specific language in the bill that would hinder educational programs, then this language likely would be worked out in committee, he said.

“We will have to define the term social networking sites,’ there will be briefings, hearings, and the term will have to be understood,” he said. “One of the points that would naturally be explored in the committee process would be hammering out the educational purposes of [such web sites]. Right now, we are just asking the federal government that has jurisdiction over the internet to study this problem.” The first reaction among educators contacted by eSchool News was that the legislation would be practically impossible to enforce.

Thanks to the use of “proxy web sites” that permit users to enter sites through a link posted from another site, one educator said, it would be virtually impossible for any school-based web filter to monitor the use of personal networking sites entirely. Others said the time students spend at school is much more strictly supervised than at home–and students are more likely to use MySpace unsupervised, outside of school.

Tim Wilson, technology integration specialist at the Hopkins School District in Minnesota and a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, said adhering to the law would be difficult for schools.

“The bill includes an exemption for educational use and adult supervision use?” Wilson said. “You mean to tell me that I’m going to reconfigure my network filter–for one hour during the day, we’re going to unblock these sites, reblock them afterward, and only for this specific bank of computers that [students are] using for the lesson? There’s no practical way to do that.”

Even those in favor of restricting access to MySpace and other sites like it say that, practically speaking, such a rule would be difficult to enforce.

Craig Nansen, district technology coordinator for Minot Public Schools in North Dakota, said age restrictions for social networking sites are “not a bad idea.” But Nansen expressed doubts about the bill’s effectiveness.

“How can an internet web site such as MySpace verify that [students] are 18 years old?” he said. “Making it a paid subscription requiring a credit card, address, and phone number is about the only way.”

MySpace recently appointed a former federal prosecutor of internet child exploitation cases for the U.S. Department of Justice, Hemanshu Nigam, to oversee safety, education, and privacy programs for the site. Fitzpatrick has acknowledged that the company that owns MySpace–Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.–is “working on” addressing some of the issues addressed through his bill.

Some ed-tech advocates believe these efforts, coupled with internet safety education for students, provide the best means of policing the problem. Others think personal networking sites could be essential tools in designing ways to better engage students–in an age when dropout rates are at an all-time high in the United States–by using the medium for educational purposes.

“The philosophical [problem] I have with blocking things in general–the kinds of technology that students enjoy, find useful at home–[is that] it drives a wedge,” Wilson said. “Students find school less and less relevant to their home life. Teachers work very hard to keep the curriculum relevant. This [legislation] is just one more wedge. Let us deal with this as an educational problem … I think that seems more reasonable.”

Bradley of the ALA expressed a similar sentiment.

“At the end of the day, we want to educate library users. We believe that giving students age-appropriate training is the best way to protect them,” she said. “Children must be supervised. We don’t want families to become overconfident about the functionality of [web filters that purport] to block chat rooms and collaborative networks, because there is no technology that works perfectly. Having an informed user, one who knows the dangers present, and one who knows to ask adults questions, is the best solution. We also need parents, adults, and librarians to be informed on this situation and who can supervise kids. We cannot rely on the technology alone to protect our children.”

Links:

Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.
http://www.fitzpatrick.house.gov

MySpace.com
http://www.myspace.com

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

eSchool News Ed-Tech Insider Blog
http://www.eschoolnews.com/eti