New Federal Legislation Would Ban Online Social Networks in Schools & Libraries
Just when you thought the media circus around MySpace had peaked comes this whopper of a story: members of Congress have proposed new legislation that would require schools and libraries to block access to online social networks.
As reported by C|NET, the Deleting Online Predators Act (PDF), or DOPA, would update the federal law that currently requires all schools and libraries receiving federal E-Rate money (the government program that subsidizes the cost of Internet access) to filter inappropriate websites. The amendment to the law would be even more specific, restricting access to interactive online communities.
According to the proposed legislation, the bill
prohibits access by minors without parental authorization to a commercial social networking website or chat room through which minors may easily access or be presented with obscene or in- decent material; may easily be subject to unlawful sexual advances, unlawful requests for sexual favors, or repeated offensive comments of a sexual nature from adults may easily access other material that is harmful to minors.
If you’re wondering what would qualify as an “online social network,” the bill defines it as “a commercially operated Internet website 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.” That definition is rather broad, of course, though apparently it would not apply to noncommercial websites. My guess is that commercial blogging tools and email list services could be subject to this legislation as well - though I do not know if it would block access to these services writ large or on a blog-by-blog/list-by-list basis.
The bill does have a loophole for allowing educational uses of online social networks. The legislation states that the filtering may be switched off “during use by an adult or by minors with adult supervision to enable access for educational purposes.” It remains to be seen whether schools will allow educators to deactivate the filter to allow such access, given the poor track record many schools have for letting educators make decisions over which sites get filtered and when.
I need to spend some more time dissecting the language of the bill, but my gut is making me rather nervous at the moment. Should legislating student access to online communities be a role handled by the federal government? Is this really a state-level issue - or a question of local community standards? Who should have the ultimate say over what students access online in school?