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