Presidential hopefuls Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul of Texas, both Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives, last year voted in favor of a bill that would have forced schools and libraries receiving federal funds to block access to MySpace and other social-networking web sites on their computers. So it seems odd, the American Library Association (ALA) contends, that the two lawmakers are among the 11 candidates who at press time had created personal profiles on a special section that MySpace has dedicated to the 2008 presidential election.

“It is kind of ironic,” said Melanie Anderson, ALA’s assistant director for government relations. “We do think it’s interesting how many of the same politicians who support DOPA are using social-networking web sites in their own campaigns.”

DOPA refers to the Deleting Online Predators Act, which passed in the House by a vote of 410 to 15 during the 109th Congress but did not reach a vote in the Senate. The bill would have amended the Communications Act of 1934 to require schools and libraries receiving federal eRate discounts on their telecommunications and internet services to enforce a policy that prohibits minors’ access to commercial social-networking web sites or chat rooms.

On March 18, MySpace–the largest and most popular such online destination, which is owned by News Corporation, the parent company of the Fox Broadcasting Company–introduced a feature called the Impact Channel. The move marked the latest attempt by an internet company to educate voters by serving as an information hub for political candidates and the public. By clicking on http://impact.myspace.com, the site’s mostly young users can link to the personal pages, or “profiles,” of Hunter, Paul, and at least nine other presidential hopefuls as of press time (see side story).

But if DOPA had become law, Anderson and others say, students likely couldn’t access any of the MySpace web pages devoted to the 2008 presidential candidates on their school computers–and library patrons probably would not have been able to find these pages, either.

The apparent contradiction points to the difficulty faced by lawmakers and educators as they try to protect children and teens from the dangers lurking in cyberspace. It also underscores the problems that can occur when lawmakers–many of whom have a limited understanding of internet issues–seek to legislate behavior in the Information Age.

Last month, Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican, introduced essentially the same legislation into the 110th Congress under bill number H.R. 1120. And in January, powerful Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, also a Republican, introduced the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. That bill, which seeks to curb online child pornography by calling for stiffer penalties for service providers who fail to report pornography depicting minors, also contains a near carbon copy of the original DOPA language.

Social-networking web sites such as MySpace give predatory adults the opportunity to stalk and, in some cases, meet with naïve teens, proponents of the bills say. Using social-networking sites, pedophiles reportedly have coerced the full names, locations, and other personally identifiable details out of several unsuspecting children.

“The Deleting Online Predators Act … says to schools and libraries that, as we upgrade protections for kids online in the home, we also do them in public spaces–to consistently and across-the-board deny opportunities to the estimated 50,000 sexual predators who are online at any one time,” Kirk said in a recent speech on the House floor.

Despite the legislation’s purportedly good intentions, many educators say the far-reaching language of these bills 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 say, 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.

Kirk’s and Stevens’ bills do include an exception that would allow use of MySpace and other social-networking web sites “for an educational purpose with adult supervision.” But many educators believe this exception means little from a practical standpoint.

Jon Bernstein, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist for education and ed-tech groups on Capitol Hill, said it isn’t likely that educators would have the time, or the patience, to take advantage of this exception.

Under the proposed legislation, educators would have to submit requests to their technology departments to remove such sites from their schools’ list of blocked sites temporarily. Then, they would have to supervise each student as he or she used these resources. Under this scenario, it’s highly unlikely any 17-year-old without home internet access would be able to use MySpace’s new Impact Channel, for example, to research or connect with presidential candidates on his or her own time.

“While the educational provision certainly makes the legislation better,” Bernstein said, “the real question is, how realistic is it?”

Links:

MySpace’s Impact Channel
http://impact.myspace.com

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