Thursday, September 21, 2006

The dopey DOPA

Recently, the House of Representatives passed the bill H.R. 5319, known as the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA). This bill must be seen as a rather easy and painless way to be seen doing something about the issue of online predation. The effect of the bill would be to curtail access to online networking and chat sites in schools and libraries (any institution that receives e-rate funding). Theoretically, these sites (Myspace is one example) are breeding grounds for internet predators, more specifically those who prey on the children who are frequent users of these kinds of sites.

There are multiple problems with this bill. From the American Library Association's website

Cnet noted that the bill's definition of off-limits websites is so broad that it could apply to many commercial services that allow communication among users. The bill requires the Federal Trade Commission to set up a website that includes information on "social networking websites and chat rooms through which personal information about child users of such websites may be accessed by child predators."
After the House vote, American Library Association President Leslie Burger issued a statement pointing out that libraries are already required to block content that is "harmful to minors" under the Children's Internet Protection Act. "This unnecessary and overly broad legislation," she added, "will hinder students' ability to engage in distance learning and block library computer users from accessing a wide array of essential internet applications including instant messaging, e-mail, wikis, and blogs."

First, I'll tell you why we can't do this. At the library, we use two different systems to control our computers. One system controls the access to the computers. This system differentiates between adults and children and makes them use computers in separate areas. However, this has nothing to do with the filtering. The filtering software is the same for both sets of computers (the reason the adult's and children's computers are separate is entirely logistical). It wouldn't be possible using the software that we have to create two different levels of access. Therefore any such restriction is necessarily also enforced on the adults. That's the practical problem, but I believe that the more important argument is that even if we could provide different access for children, it would be wrong to do so.

Our computers are there for any purpose to which the public wants to put them, the same as our books. That purpose is often to chat, email, or use social networking sites (Myspace, etc.), especially for adults (you'll often see the children, even teens, playing games or watching music videos). The reason I mention books is that the issue of access has already been covered for other materials. We don't deny children access to adult books or videos, regardless of content, because it's not anyone's right except the parents' to control that access.

Furthermore, social networking sites are an important means of communication for children. One example would be the pro-immigration rallies organized earlier this year on Myspace, with further examples given in this article from The Nation .

Despite some legislators' viewpoints' that the law can abrogate children's rights, the Supreme Court has generally upheld that children are entitled to the same rights as an adult (the full rights of a U.S. citizen). Now it has been decided that filtering out pornography from the internet by libraries is not a violation of first amendment rights (thus CIPA).While that decision is probably wrong, it can at least be argued that all pornography is harmful to minors. We can agree that pornography is by definition obscene, and perhaps all obscenity is harmful to children. This law, however, if examined in parallel, is saying that it's permissible to limit all speech, not just obscene speech, because some of it could be harmful to minors. I would further argue that this law would be an infringement not only of free speech, but of the right to congregate. Perhaps others don't see it in that light, but communication is communication.

After looking around on the internet, it's been very easy to find cases where law enforcement laid traps to catch predators and then did. What you won't find, however, are many mentions of cases where people were caught for acts they actually did. While there are some cases, to be sure, it's not nearly the epidemic that a law like DOPA seems to be addressing. As a matter of fact, it appears that only in a miniscule number of cases are adults even contacting children, much less soliciting them.

There's a great article addressing that subject on written by Benjamin Radford.

Here's some info from his article:

According to a May 3, 2006, "ABC News" report, "One in five children is now approached by online predators."

This alarming statistic is commonly cited in news stories about prevalence of Internet predators. The claim can be traced back to a 2001 Department of Justice study issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ("The Youth Internet Safety Survey") that asked 1,501 American teens between 10 and 17 about their online experiences. Among the study's conclusions: "Almost one in five (19 percent)…received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year." (A "sexual solicitation" is defined as a "request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that were unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult." Using this definition, one teen asking another teen if her or she is a virgin—or got lucky with a recent date—could be considered "sexual solicitation.")

Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the "sexual solicitations" came not from "predators" or adults but from other teens. When the study examined the type of Internet "solicitation" parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from "one in five" to 3 percent.

So the statistics to back up the assertion that children are in any great danger from online predators are lacking, to say the least. I don't say that it never happens, but do we actually need to take the step of limiting children's freeom of speech and right to congregate to protect them from a threat which isn't real?

As Radford says:

One tragic result of these myths is that the panic over sex offenders distracts the public from a far greater threat to children: parental abuse and neglect.
The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders, but instead by the victim's own family, church clergy, and family friends. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger." If lawmakers and the public are serious about wanting to protect children, they should not be misled by "stranger danger" myths and instead focus on the much larger threat inside the home.

Right now the bill (H.R. 5319) is in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation under review before it will be voted on in the full Senate, if it ever does (these things often die in committee). I intend to write these senators (at least some of them), as well as my senators from Texas. If you follow the link given, it lists the members of the committee and gives links. Also, you can find your own senators through the Project Vote Smart link we provide on the right sidebar. I also invite you to use the text of my letter to them if you wish (no need to credit me, either).

Dear Senator,

H.R. 5319, known as the "Deleting Online Predators Act", is currently under review in the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. I'm writing to you to urge you to oppose this bill. While the protection of children from online predators is certainly a laudable motive, it is simply not a valid reason to curtail children's rights to communicate with each other through online chat and social networking sites at schools and libraries. The statistics that are available seem to suggest that this "problem" of internet predators is almost non-existent, with documented cases being very few and far between. However, online communications are extremely important to children, even being the means by which some students organized pro-immigration rallies, an important contribution to our democracy and a great learning experience for the students.

Not only would it be wrong to take that ability to communicate away from children, it would be impossible to restrict such measures to children. This law would by default also bar adults from using these sites at many libraries that simply don't have the technology to set different standards for different age groups of computer users. Of course the burden for enforcing these limits would fall upon the libraries, which would then mean using more of their ever-shrinking budgets to deal with a non-existent problem.

Furthermore, the library is a public institution that is supposed to provide free and complete access to information to all users. It is important that it not be used as the tool of discrimination by a partisan government which is simply attempting to pad their resumes with some action that has no negative impact on them and no positive impact on the public. Public libraries have come to realize that enforcing limits on who has access to what information necessarily leads to unequal access for members of the public.

Please oppose this bill, which does more to hurt children than help them and places an undue burden on public libraries. To do otherwise would be to betray the values of the democracy that we live in. Thank you.



Xanthippas said...

This is a stupid bill, designed to "solve" an overhyped problems. It's yet another example of politicians trying to look "tough" on crime. That their solution is an overbroad approach that won't actually solve the problem they claim to be concerned by is, of course, irrelevant.

Nat-Wu said...

I have written four members of the Senate committee handling this bill. If enough people care, perhaps we can get something done.