The social-networking site MySpace has 95 million registered users. If it were a country, it would be the 12th largest in the world (ranking between Mexico and the Philippines). But under a bill designed to combat sexual predators on the Internet, MySpace and similar sites would become countries that young people can’t visit – at least not using computers at schools or libraries.
The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May by Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA), was passed by a vote of 410 to 15 on July 26. It requires, with few exemptions, that facilities receiving federal aid block minors from accessing commercial social-networking sites and chat rooms, where they might encounter adults seeking sexual contact.
The bill has now moved on to the Senate. Critics from the worlds of educational technology and media studies say they’re alarmed that the legislation has advanced this far. They warn that it would do little to stop sexual predators, but would deprive youth from poor areas of their only access to the online communities that are an increasingly critical part of teen culture. To these critics, the act is an election-year stunt designed to make any member of Congress who opposes it look “soft” on sexual predators.
It’s a “monumentally ill-considered piece of legislation” that “by any rational measure” should never have left the House, says Henry Jenkins, professor of literature and director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. Jenkins believes the act plays on parents’ lack of understanding, and their resulting fears, about their kids’ activities on the Internet. “But the price of standing up to that fear may be too high for liberal Democrats,” he says.
If the Senate approves a similar bill and the legislation reaches President Bush’s desk, the price to young people will be even higher, say Jenkins and other critics. “If it would actually prevent predation, I would be fine with it,” says Danah Boyd, a PhD candidate in the School of Information Management Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, who is considered one of the leading scholarly authorities on social-networking sites. “But it’s not going to help at all. Out of 300,000 child abductions every year, only 12 are by strangers. This is just going to stifle the social-networking industry and completely segment youth around economic status.”
The impact on youth from economically disadvantaged families is what Jenkins worries about most. “Already, you have a gap between kids who have 10 minutes of Internet access a day at the public library and kids who have 24-hour-a-day access at home,” he says. “Already, we have filters in libraries [required under the Child Internet Protection Act of 2001] blocking access to much of the Internet. Now we’re talking about adding even more restrictions. It exaggerates the ‘participation gap’ – not a technology gap, but a difference in access to the defining cultural experiences that take place around technology today.”