learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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DOPA Dies on the Vine

The end of 2006 also marks the end of the current congressional session in the House and Senate, closing the door on the Deleting Online Predators Act. Let’s take a look at why this legislation, which passed overwhelmingly in the House this summer, died such a slow death.

Those of you who’ve been following this blog from the get-go are undoubtedly aware of the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA. But for those of you who don’t frequent my humble column on a regular basis, here’s the skinny. DOPA, introduced last May by Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick and a coalition of suburban Republican representatives, would have required all schools and libraries that receive federal Internet subsidies to block youth access to interactive online services, particularly online social networks and chat rooms. The bill was introduced at the height of media coverage surrounding MySpace and online predators, inspiring these members of Congress to get in on the act.

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.

Many education bloggers and Internet activists pointed out that the bill was overly broad, and would have blocked access to entire classes of online tools, rather than specific sites that had demonstrated a poor track record in protecting kids. Commercial blogging tools and discussion boards would have been blocked, whether they were being used inappropriately or not. And the educational provision for allowing teachers to unblock useful tools was decried as being insufficient, based on previous experience by educators who have struggled to unblock sites automatically blocked by current filtering tools.

Nonetheless, the House passed the bill almost unanimously (410-15), much to the shock of the bill’s critics who voted against it, who complained that there was insufficient debate. “So now we are on the floor with a piece of legislation poorly thought out, with an abundance of surprises, which carries with it that curious smell of partisanship and panic, but which is not going to address the problems,” lamented Michigan Democrat Rep. John Dingell. “This is a piece of legislation which is going to be notorious for its ineffectiveness and, of course, for its political benefits to some of the members hereabout.”

For a time, it seemed that DOPA would inevitably reach the president’s desk. Surely the overwhelming support of the House would be reflected in the Senate, one might have surmised. But then, something quite unexpected happened: nothing. With all the criticism being lobbed by the blogosphere and the media, DOPA found itself among a group of skeptical senators who were in no rush to pass the legislation. After it passed the House, influential Senator Patrick Leahy expressed concerns with DOPA, and media reports suggested he would take a long, hard look at the bill, effectively slowing it down. Individual senators have greater power than House members to slow legislative processes, and critics like Leahy could choose to take advantage of this.

Complicating matters was the Mark Foley scandal. Even though he wasn’t a co-sponsor of DOPA, Rep. Foley was a close associate of Mike Fitzpatrick, the congressman who introduced it. The two of them had also drafted another piece of legislation called the Internet Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today’s Youth Act, or SAFETY. Though the SAFETY Act was less controversial than DOPA, its association with Foley probably didn’t help it when he was caught sending inappropriate emails to House pages. The bill was never even placed for debate. Suddenly, even well-meaning online safety bills were seen as hypocritical, making them a political hot potato as long as the Foley scandal raged.

Meanwhile, Rep. Fitzpatrick was finding himself in a close re-election race back home, giving him less time to lobby his Senate colleagues in support of DOPA. It turned out his efforts were futile - Fitzpatrick lost his re-election bid in November. He wasn’t alone. Three of DOPA’s co-sponsors - JD Hayworth, Sue Kelly and Curt Weldon - also lost their re-election bids.

But the final nail in DOPA’s coffin came with the switch of Congress from Republican to Democrat. Legislation that doesn’t get signed into law by the end of a congressional term has to start from scratch during the next term. In January, the Democrats will be in charge of both houses of Congress, and there’s no sign that they’re going to rush and re-introduce DOPA. Key DOPA critics in the House and Senate, including Reps Ed Markey, John Dingell and Sen. Patrick Leahy, will soon be in leadership positions. With the Republican losses in November, it will be harder for their caucus members to re-introduce DOPA, especially since Fitzpatrick is gone and they lacked Democrat co-sponsors in the first place.

So it would seem that DOPA is a done deal. Of course, there’s no way to predict what’ll happen in the future, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another surge of media coverage surrounding kids and online safety. The question is whether the new Democrat leaders of Congress would look at the resulting public polling data and decide to enact their own DOPA-like legislation. It’s certainly possible, but given the leadership roles that’ll be played by members like Markey, Dingell and Leahy, any new legislation would probably go through a much more thorough examination than DOPA ever did. -andy

Filed under : Policy, Safety, Social Networking


Nice summary, Andy. I’m a high school teacher whose students all have Blogger accounts, so I’m pretty happy that DOPA failed. I also believe very strongly in education, not ignorance. The fact that DOPA passed the House was a shock to just about everyone with much of a grasp on how loosely DOPA was written. Proposition 87 failed in California for similar reasons: vague and undefined terms kill because legislation needs to be specific enough to have indications of failure and success.

I’m not so sure there’s a huge public outcry for this type of legislation. Prop 83 in California’s recent election indicates that there’s a desire to increase punishment for sex offenders, but could the MySpace fear be winding down? Prop 83 is a very general mandate for stronger punishment, not a specific mandate for online restrictions.

There’s certainly an outcry for it from politicians, ulterior motives considered, but I don’t think this type of bill will pop up again due to “public polling data.” Can you elaborate a bit more on what you meant in that final paragraph, Andy? Is that a reference to some kind of public poll of support for DOPA?

Andy thanks for the insightful summary. I don’t think the problem is with the Internet, it’s with the way that some people use the Internet and the tools available on it. As teachers it is our responsibility to teach our students how to use the tools responsibly. If we had been prohibited from allowing our students to go onto these sites, we would have simultaneously been prohibited from teaching our students how to be smart Internet citizens. Here’s to a good end of the year and happy and healthy new year.

Andrew Pass

This discussion continues, regardless of DOPey laws - many school administrators are watching this debate (or taking sides) because of the implications for student exposure to inappropriate material. You can find a good argument for both sides on ISTE’s (International Society for Technology in Education) website for the Leading & Learning Magazine:

January / February Leading & Learning, page 8 and 9

I’d also like to bring up a reference to the current E-Rate requirements for schools to filter content - THERE IS a provision that teachers may disable the filter for “research or other lawful purposes” - I wonder if teaching online safety (showing students an appropriate use of MySpace, for instance) would constitute that “lawful purpose” in the eyes of CIPA. After all, If I as the teacher ensure that the website contains no “visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography” or is “harmful to minors,” isn’t this a lawful use?

Universal Service CIPA Website

Thanks for your article! The American Library Association (ALA) has been monitoring the progress of DOPA, which it opposes, along with other DOPA-like legislation. For more information, see also ALA’s wiki on Interactive Web applications and Online Social Networking and Intellectual Freedom.

Todd wrote:

There’s certainly an outcry for it from politicians, ulterior motives considered, but I don’t think this type of bill will pop up again due to “public polling data.” Can you elaborate a bit more on what you meant in that final paragraph, Andy? Is that a reference to some kind of public poll of support for DOPA?

Actually, what happened was that a group of House Republicans commissioned a poll to see what issues were concerning suburban voters. Among the things that popped up were online safety and MySpace, so that translated into DOPA. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this happening over the years, Republican or Democrat, and I doubt it’ll be the last. -andy

Thanks for this great summary of the inaction on this bill. As a librarian, I’m glad to see it meet its death. One quibble: you say in your final paragraph that “DOPA is a done deal.” To me, that idiom suggests it passed. IMHO, you should have said, “The DEATH of DOPA is a done deal.”

Thanks for this summary. I had suspected this was the case but it’s nice to see it all spelled out. Woo hoo!

I agree with what most of the people here have to say. MySpace is not like a gun in that its only purpose is destructive — there is no reason to legally restrict its use. Yes, parents should put pressure on MySpace to improve its security (which it is), but fundamentally, if parents are worried about their children they should be more mindful of what their children are doing PERIOD. It’s almost pathetic, in my mind, the degree to which parents don’t parent and rely on external bodies such as the government.

Fantastic news about the long-overdue death of DOPA! Now, if we can just do something about Crazy Old Man John McCain and his War On Blogs…

That legislastion is gone, too. Any legislation introduced during the 109th Congress that wasn’t signed into law expired as of noon today and has to be re-introduced.

Brilliant summary/update … many thanks

Any legislation introduced during the 109th Congress that wasn’t signed into law expired as of noon today and has to be re-introduced.

This is true. However, McCain, unlike most of DOPA’s original sponsors, was unfortunately not thrown out of office in November. Plus, he’s running for President, and thus will want to generate as much press as humanly possible. What better way to do so than a bunch of blather about how he’s “protecting the children”? I predict his atrocious anti-blog law will be back, and soon.

Your last poster engaged in bashing rather than in thoughtful input

You’re absolutely right.

Aaron, feel free to offer analysis, but keep it civil. I agree that there’s a reasonable chance that he may reintroduce the legislation, but that doesn’t mean you have to suggest it by bashing him on a personal level. -andy

I believe the system of helping online children can be better protected, not through goverment but through letting other parents know how the kids of today are using the internet and keep an eye on the internet for better use.

Also this action should not be enforced in such a radical way.

Dopa is reborn as DOPA jr…

(from the non explicit although maybe nsfw adult industry news source Xbiz):

While many thought the bill would remain dead after the midterm election results saw a power shift in the capital, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-AK, introduced S.B. 49 at the beginning of the current legislative session. The bill is reported to have identical language to DOPA, with one addition.

Yeah, I’ve been blogging about the new legislation over the last week. You can find them in the policy archive. -andy

So… what’s the consensus here? Is DOPA back?

Aaron Delwiche (not the other Aaron who posted in this thread.)

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