A new Senate bill would require schools receiving federal eRate funds to educate students about internet safety and block students’ access to social-networking web sites or chat rooms unless supervised.

Advocates of educational technology say the bill takes a more common-sense approach to keeping kids safe online than some earlier attempts by Congress.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, introduced the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act on Aug. 2. Co-sponsors of the bill include Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Democrats Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Bill Nelson of Florida.

Under the bill, schools receiving telecommunications discounts would have to educate students about appropriate online behavior, such as how to interact properly with others on social-networking sites and in chat rooms, and how to recognize and respond to cyber bullying.

If passed, the legislation would direct the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to carry out a nationwide public-awareness campaign of strategies to promote safe use of the internet by children. The agency also would serve as a clearinghouse for web-safety information that could be accessed by state and local governments, schools, and other appropriate entities. The bill would authorize $5 million in 2008 and 2009 for such purposes, and it would require the FTC to submit an annual report to Congress regarding its activities to promote internet safety.

In addition, the Commerce Department would be required to establish an Online Safety and Technology Working Group that would bring together representatives from the technology industry, public-interest groups, and other appropriate agencies to (1) review and evaluate industry efforts to promote parental-control technologies, including blocking and filtering technologies and age-appropriate labeling; (2) report evidence of apparent child pornography; (3) detail industry practices regarding the retention of data that may be used to identify and prosecute crimes against children; and (4) support the development of new technologies that will help parents shield their children from inappropriate online material. The working group would report its findings and recommendations within one year.

Finally, the bill would require internet service providers to report child pornography, and failure to report it would result in tripled fines.

The legislation comes after last year’s Congress nearly rushed approval of the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), drafted by Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., which passed in the House by a vote of 410 to 15 but did not reach a vote in the Senate. That bill would have amended the Communications Act of 1934 to require schools and libraries receiving federal eRate discounts to enforce a policy that prohibits minors’ access to commercial social-networking web sites or chat rooms.

Critics of DOPA said the bill was too broad and likely would have prevented educators from taking full advantage of using the internet as a tool for teaching and learning. It would have forced any school or library that receives government telecommunications 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."

This time around, however, ed-tech advocates say the current legislation seems to make more sense and marks a more level-headed approach to internet safety.

"We now see a bill that asks schools to take their proper role in teaching safe and responsible use of the internet, rather than trying to block emerging communication and social-networking systems with great potential for positively engaging students and improving learning," said Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education.

"One of a school’s primary functions is to ensure safety and build responsible citizens, and trying to block every threatening activity that goes on in society is not a formula for effective education."

Knezek applauded the bill’s efforts to increase web-safety education and cited New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s recent request that teachers begin internet-safety training.

"That’s exactly the kind of approach we hope to see happen, rather than prohibiting modern communication structures and tools," he said.

The new bill also comes a few weeks after the National Governors Association highlighted internet safety as a key issue for states to address. during its annual meeting in July. Last year, Virginia became the first state to require schools to teach students about online safety (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6261).

"This legislation will provide important tools to help protect our children from online predators and other cyber threats," said Stevens. "The internet is a significant part of many people’s lives, and we must ensure that our children are educated about how to safely use this resource."

Links:

International Society for Technology in Education http://www.iste.org