Lifting the Hood on DOPA Jr.
The official text of the bill to replace the Deleting Online Predators Act has been published, and it goes beyond the scope of the original legislation, addressing child pornography, cyberbullying and children’s privacy. Let’s take a look under the hood and see what’s going on with DOPA Jr., and how it may affect every educator who uses blogs and other Web 2.0 tools in their teaching.
As I covered in my column earlier this week, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) recently introduced Senate Bill 49, or S. 49. Until a few days ago, it didn’t have an official name associated with it, but now that the bill has been published in the Congressional Record, we can refer to is as the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. Unfortunately, PC21CA doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so as far as this blog is concerned, I’ll be calling it DOPA Jr. until someone more creative than I can come up with a better name.
DOPA Jr. goes beyond the scope of the 2006 bill by covering a broader range of changes in the law. It contains three sections, or titles: Protecting Children, Deleting Online Predators and Children’s Listbroker Privacy.
Title 1, Protecting Children, would alter the Communications Act of 1934, the venerable law that still serves as the underlying basis for today’s telecommunications law. This title of the bill would force video service providers, online or otherwise, to prevent the distribution of child pornography over their services. It then goes on to require that any site that includes adult materials to not include such materials on their homepage, and embed a mark within their site’s pages that identifies their content as adult-oriented. This requirement would be incumbent upon the site’s owners, and not the Internet service provider that hosts the site. Failure to do so could land a site owner in jail for up to five years. The law, of course, would only apply to content producers in the United States, and could not be used against the millions (Billions? Do I hear trillions?) of adult websites originating overseas.
Title II, Deleting Online Predators, is essentially the original DOPA legislation, but with some new twists. If enacted into law, it would enforce “a policy of Internet safety for minors that prevents cyberbullying and includes monitoring the online activities of minors and the operation of a technology protection measure with respect to any of its computers with Internet access.” What this policy would look like is left to the schools. And it’s worth noting that the bill would only apply to schools that receive federal Internet subsidies via the E-Rate program. Wealthier schools that forgo E-Rate subsidies wouldn’t have to worry about it.
School policy would also be required to protect “against access by minors without parental authorization to a commercial social networking website or chat room, and informs parents that sexual predators can use these websites and chat rooms to prey on children.” In other words, this translates into two distinct actions: filtering online services that allow students to interact, while requiring potential notification of the Internet’s dangers. In case you’re wondering what types of sites this covers, the bill defines an online social network this way:
- is offered by a commercial entity;
- permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information;
- permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users;
- elicits highly-personalized information from users; and
- enables communication among users.
This definition, no doubt, will draw the ire of many critics, because it would include a wide range of online publishing tools, including blogs. It might also apply to email discussion group tools like Yahoogroups or Google Groups, because those tools are a part of a suite of tools offered by those companies that when taken together, could be defined in similar ways.
The title also adds an exception “during use by an adult or by minors with adult supervision to enable access for educational purposes.” Supporters of DOPA have argued that this exception would mean that interactive tools wouldn’t be banned outright, and would allow teachers to use them in supervised activities. Critics, however, reply by noting that many school districts do not give individual educators the ability to de-activate filters as needed, either preventing them outright or setting up so much red tape that teachers just don’t bother. Assuming this is the case, even if the bill contains this exception, in practice, many educators won’t have the ability to use interactive sites in their teaching. And there’s nothing stopping schools from ignoring the exception and blocking any site that whiffs of Web 2.0itude, perhaps in the fear that it’s better to be safe than sorry in today’s litigious environment. Similarly, public libraries receiving E-Rate funds would be expected to block access to these sites when used by young people. (Yet another reason why so many libraries that can afford it refuse to accept E-Rate funding.)
Title II wraps up with a mandate to the Federal Trade Commission to send out a “consumer alert” warning of the dangers of online social networks and other interactive websites. The FTC would also be required to set up a website outlining these dangers.
Title III, focuses on protecting children’s privacy. This part of the bill would make it illegal for anyone to sell or purchase private data about someone they know to be a child. The title includes an exception for any data that is exchanged with parental consent, such as during an e-commerce transaction.
From an educator’s perspective, there’s no doubt the focus of discussion will be on Title II of the bill. Very little has changed since the original DOPA language was introduced in May 2007. I’m sure that the anti-cyberbullying aspects of the bill will be seen as a step in the right direction, though its lack of clarity on the subject may raise some eyebrows. Even with this language, though, educators and non-educators alike will probably spend the coming months reigniting the debate over the role of Web 2.0 tools in the classroom. And if it’s anything like previous debates, we may find more people talking at each other than listening to each other. Hang on to your hats, folks. -andy