Tech.gov: Protecting Kids OnlineCongress has been trying for ages to make the Internet safer for kids. Would the latest bill help or hurt?
Anush Yegyazarian, PC World
In its continuing quest to protect children from harmful content (or contact) online, Congress has drafted a new bill. The House of Representatives approved the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 (H.R. 5319) at the end of July, and it's now awaiting review by a Senate committee.
The law's goals are--as usual in cases like this--good ones. Congress wants to protect children who may be exposed to sexual predators while they're in a Web chat room with friends, or who may be preyed upon because they've divulged too much information, posted photos of themselves, or been lured into inappropriate conversations through a social networking site such as MySpace.
To achieve these goals, the proposed bill would require schools and libraries that receive a certain kind of federal funding to not only filter content (as they do now) but to restrict or outright prohibit children from going to commercial social networking sites and chat rooms on a publicly accessible computer. Congress's apparent intent is to help parents by providing some degree of supervision of their children's online activities while the kids are away from home.
I support the goals of this legislation, but I am concerned that it may be overly broad, and may wind up restricting access to sites with perfectly legitimate and harmless content.
The Senate has taken a separate action to protect children online via a provision in a massive telecommunications reform bill. The bill (H.R. 5252) was passed by the House of Representatives in June but has since undergone significant revision in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Its approach to child protection is more far reaching than that of DOPA, as it would set up a federal ratings system for all commercial Web sites and impose criminal penalties for violations. Depending on its implementation, it could cause serious problems--perhaps creating a chilling effect on speech--all over the Web. Because of the bill's complexity and its importance, I'll be focusing on it separately in my next column, which will also include discussion of its section on child protection.
DOPA would have the Federal Communications Commission define chat rooms and commercial social networking sites to help libraries and schools screen potential hazards effectively. The bill does not give its own rules, but suggests that the FCC consider five main attributes: whether the site is offered by a commercial entity; whether users can create online profiles with detailed personal information; whether users can communicate with one another; whether a site "elicits highly personalized information" from its users; and whether users can create and share blogs.
The degree to which a site meets one or more of those criteria would presumably determine whether the site would be restricted. Let's leave aside the question of whether the government should be screening and reviewing Web sites at all, and see how the rules might work in practice.
PCWorld.com, for example, offers staff-posted blogs that allow users to post comments, and has introduced forums where registered users may communicate (both publicly and privately), create a profile, or add pictures to their posts. PCWorld.com is also a commercial Web site. It's unclear whether PCWorld.com's registration process qualifies as an effort to elicit highly personalized information from its users (though that doesn't seem likely). By the terms of the act, the only criterion to be defined as a social networking site that PCWorld.com clearly lacks is support for user-created blogs. Still, our Web site has three out of five features that might force schools and libraries to block it under the proposed law, depending on how the FCC ultimately chooses to define harmful sites.
Many other Web sites are in the same boat, as they offer features that could get them struck from the "allowed" list, yet are clearly not designed to foster the kind of instant friendship and intimacy that could potentially be most dangerous for kids.
Of course, any real examination of a site would also take into account the type of information discussed. The FCC is not going to ban a site for its members' discussion of computer news or Windows problems.
However, the bill doesn't actually say that. And it truly does create a burden for the FCC, schools, and libraries to painstakingly vet sites that are less clear-cut in their intentions than ones like PC World's.
Health advice sites, for example, could be more difficult to classify, especially if any of the discussion involves sexually transmitted diseases. And what about chat rooms that are meant to provide support for teens with AIDS? Or even support sites for the families--including children--of alcoholics or people with cancer? These types of sites serve a legitimate function, but I would imagine that some of the conversations get highly personal and--given the nature of the discussion--could make participants vulnerable to predators. Should they, too, be blocked?
The bill would let authorized library or school personnel disable filters and restrictions when adults use the PC or when children use the PC for educational purposes (with adult supervision). Would the health sites mentioned above be considered educational? Would a child or teen who is having problems at home with, say, an alcoholic family member or friend feel comfortable asking a school or library worker to lift the restrictions so he or she could access a support site? Moreover, would that child be comfortable with whatever adult supervision might be required?
I'm less concerned about restrictions for purely social sites and chat rooms because I don't believe public schools and libraries have an obligation to provide children with access to such sites (adults who want to access them would be able to request a filter override).
Admittedly, however, I'm uncomfortable with the fact that minors who do not have a computer at home may be completely shut out of what is increasingly a normal part of social interaction for adolescents. It's also true that millions of children go online every day and are not targeted by predators. Those facts may argue for not having protective laws at all, especially given their potential for exacerbating the digital divide. But the grave harm that can result when children are targeted outweighs such considerations, in my opinion.
The act includes one other directive: education. The Federal Trade Commission (not the FCC) would be charged with sending out a consumer alert about the dangers to children from online predators who may lurk in chat rooms or on social networking sites. The agency would also be responsible for putting together a Web site with information for parents, teachers, and other interested parties on these dangers and what can be done to mitigate them.
I think that's a great idea. Parents need the information, as do teachers, school officials, and anyone else who deals with children.
H.R. 5319 would better meet its goals if it went a bit further and funded special sessions, led by local police or child protection experts, that would take place once or twice a year in public schools. Such sessions could teach children how to identify potential predators and give them tips on avoiding such people or getting themselves out of hazardous situations--in other words, helping the kids help themselves.
These presentations could be tailored to specific age groups and would allow older teens to be treated as such, instead of lumping children of all ages together without taking into account that an older child may be able to have--and should have, in my opinion--access to more information than a younger one. Moreover, this kind of directed, personal outreach could do more to bring a child's attention to the problem, and gain that child's cooperation, than filtering software, which may simply serve to arouse curiosity.
Protecting children is a worthy goal, and dangerous people do wait to pounce on unsuspecting kids who drift into chat rooms or who frequent social networking sites. This bill is a good first effort towards achieving that goal, but it needs better criteria for defining dangerous sites and a more hands-on educational component.
(For tips on making the Internet safer for your kids, check out this Internet Tips column from Scott Spanbauer.)