Why the Delete Online Predators Act Won't Delete Predatory Behavior:
Requiring Libraries and Schools to Block Access to Sites like MySpace.com and FaceBook.com Isn't the Best Option To Solve the Problem

By ANITA RAMASASTRY
Monday, Aug. 07, 2006

Just over one week ago, the House of Representatives, by a vote of 410-15, passed a bill that will force federally-funded libraries and public primary and secondary schools to block access to popular chat rooms and "social networking sites" such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com.

On these sites, people can post personal profiles, and "meet up" in cyberspace and offline if they choose. Myspace.com, in particular, has recently come under attack, in the press and in the courts, because it is alleged that sexual predators use the site as a way to meet underage victims. (I discussed a recent lawsuit in a prior column.)

The bill, referred to as the Delete Online Predators Act (DOPA), is meant to keep kids safe. But I will argue that it's unlikely to do so - and, indeed, may only give parents a false sense of security.

Congress and the government should focus their resources, instead, on catching predators, and parents and teachers need to realize that the dangers lurking in cyberspace are also dangers that exist offline, and to educate children accordingly.

What DOPA Will Do: Its Specific Provisions

Currently, the dominant federal law in the area of schools, libraries and the Internet is the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) - enacted in 2000. It requires libraries and schools that receive federal funding to install filters on public Internet terminals to block access to material that is obscene, constitutes illegal child pornography, or, in the case of computer terminals to which minors have access, is "harmful to minors." In 2003, in United States v. American Library Association, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld CIPA against librarians' First Amendment challenges.

DOPA would expand CIPA to further require that libraries and public high schools and grammar schools (not colleges or universities) receiving federal funding to prohibit "access to a commercial social-networking Web site or chat room" . Access by a minor a minor may occur with adult supervision solely "for educational purposes." Adults will still be able to access these Web sites at a library upon request.

How is a "commercial social-networking Web site or chat room" defined? Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will come up with the final definition, DOPA says the FCC should take into consideration whether a site/service "is offered by a commercial entity"; "permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information" or an "on-line journal" that can be shared with other users; "elicits highly-personalized information from users"; and enables communication among users."

Let's hope the FCC, at least, significant narrows its test, rather than relying on these factors alone. These factors, without narrowing, could sweep in a wide range of commercial interactive web sites that have little chance of causing harm - from blogs, to political discussion groups or chat rooms that are of interest mainly to adults, but that do allow users to post detailed profiles, and even to Amazon.com, which allows users to post profiles and personal "wish lists."

Why DOPA May Well Be Ineffective

DOPA may sound like a good idea, but it isn't. Indeed, it may foster a false sense of security that leads us to refrain from taking what could be more effective measures.

Notably, none of the reported MySpace incidents have been linked to school or library computers, and that shouldn't be surprising: Students can access the Internet from many more private places - such as from home, or in an Internet cafe - as well as in more private ways, such as from their Blackberries, and their cell phone. And making Myspace and similar sites taboo at school or the library may only increase their allure to teens.

More generally, as I have noted in my previous column on the MySpace litigation, teenagers can easily meet sexual predators or other criminals in public places - at shopping malls, all-ages clubs, roller skating rinks and parties. If they are forced off social networking sites, that won't be the end of their social activity. Surely, many parents would much rather have their kids chatting online at school or at a library, than unsupervised at a mall or party. Even if DOPA did force teens offline, it might only put them in more danger.

DOPA has another downside, too: It may increase our "digital divide." Lower-income kids may have their only Internet access at schools or in libraries. And even through networking sites have risks, they have positive aspects as well: Students can meet other students with similar interests in hobbies, sports and other activities, trade advice about colleges, and discuss issues such as divorce, depression, being a gay teen, and more.

We should think carefully before, in effect, forcing low-income kids alone off social networking sites. MySpace is not supposed to be a gated community - at least in that sense. One of its advantages is that rich and poor kids can mix there.

When we choose how to use our resources to combat online predators, we should focus on two things: Educating kids, and trapping predators. Kids need to know that it's never safe to meet a stranger - even an online "friend" who says he's a kid - except in a public place, and that if the "kid" turns out to be an adult, they may be in grave danger. And predators need to know that if they troll for victims, the chances are good that they will meet up with the police or FBI instead.

We also need to remember that the teens who network on MySpace today, may become adults who use online dating services and other interactive services in the future. Teenagers need to learn proper skills to cope with the new world of online networking.


Anita Ramasastry is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and a Director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology. She has previously written on business law, cyberlaw, and other legal issues for this site, which contains an archive of her columns.

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