MySpace: A Threat to America's Schools?
After drawing the ire of computer users when he described the Internet as “a series of tubes” and cautioned that “the Internet is not something you just dump something on…it’s not a big truck,” Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has come under fire this month for introducing a bill that could prohibit public school students and library users from accessing some websites, including Facebook and Wikipedia.
Stevens’ proposed legislation, the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, is designed to protect minors from online predators and child pornography. The bill would amend the Communications Act of 1934 and has a broad array of provisions that range from increased fines for online services that fail to report child pornography to greater restrictions on marketing to children.
The bill’s most controversial requirement is that schools and libraries block minors from accessing chat rooms and social networking sites. Stevens’ bill defines a social networking site as one that “permits registered users to create an online profile that includes detailed personal information” and “enables communication among users.”
Senator Stevens’ proposal has caused an outcry among academics and internet activists alike.
Computer World Contributing Editor Presto Gralla wrote on his publication’s blog last month, “There are so many things wrong with this bill, it’s hard to count them all.”
“Its greatest irony would be banning Wikipedia — perhaps the most widely-used reference resource in the world — from libraries and schools,” Gralla said.
Nonetheless, the bill’s exact terms remain a source of confusion. “The language of the bill doesn’t call for any outright bans. It calls for adult guidance. The definition of social networking sites, as defined in the bill, is vague enough to include, possibly, Wikipedia, but even then, there are concessions made as to its use,” WebProNews’s Jason Lee Miller wrote in February.
Oberlin College Politics Professor Ronald Kahn, who teaches a course on the First Amendment and the Internet, called the bill a “non-starter.” Kahn explained, “You’re not supposed to have prior restraint…you cannot bring the Internet to the level of someone under the age of 16.”
In Kahn’s view, the bill was less about law and more about political positioning.
The Stevens bill is based on the Deleting Online Predators Act, which, like its Senate counterpart, would have banned access to social networking services. DOPA passed the House of Representatives last year by a wide margin but has not been taken up by the Senate.
Stevens’ bill is currently waiting for a hearing in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.