You might as well ban oxygen as a means to rid the world of sexual predators

You might as well ban oxygen as a means to rid the world of sexual predators: [I have voted to suspend my ‘no political bogging rule in order to post the following rant.] Civics lesson alert, people. And before we all panic, let’s take a deep breath and learn what’s taking place. First the news: The U.S. House of Representatives, by a 410-15 vote, passed legislation that, according to a story on the Congressional Quarterly website, cq.com (a very expensive subscription site), “would require schools and public libraries that receive certain federal technology improvement grants to block minors from viewing pornography or using “social networking” Web sites at their facilities.” This vote is causing a major eruption on the tech blogosphere this morning — and, frankly, it should. In fact, I’ll add to that eruption.

First, an observation about the “politics” that are probably at work here. A vote of 410-15 means that the vast majority of the House parked all logic at the door — a majority of both Republicans and Democrats voted in favor of the bill. For example, my congressman, Jim Cooper, who is a Democrat (disclosure: Jim is a personal friend and I am an extremely loyal supporter, despite my ideological disagreement with him at times — like now), voted for this legislation. I don’t know why, as Jim usually doesn’t cave on these types of symbol over substance issues — I haven’t talked with him about it.

Despite the majority vote for the legislation, this looks like a “gotcha” piece of legislation designed to create a campaign sound-bite in the coming election. According to CQ, the bill was placed directly on the House calendar, bypassing the Energy and Commerce Committee, and was passed under suspension of the rules, which limits debate, bars amendments and requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

John Dingell, D-Mich., and ranking member of the committee, told CQ: “I can’t tell whether it’s a bunch of Republicans who are panicky about the next election or whether it is a situation in which everybody’s trying to rush to get out of town to go on an August vacation.”

Consider how difficult it would be to vote against this legislation: Can you imagine the campaign radio spot: “Sexual predators are stalking your children on line — and when given an opportunity to do something about it, Congressman Doe voted against protecting your children.” Frankly, faced with that prospect, I can’t believe the legislation got any “no” votes.

However, this is a classic example of how wonderful intentions (I fully believe protecting children from online sexual predators is a wonderful intention) can easily turn into really bad policy, legislation and regulations.

I hesitate to attempt to “break-down” the legislation and will admit that I am the last person I’d trust to interpret the intentions of lawmakers who held no hearings or debate on the specific bill, however, from this text of the bill, one can easily see that the legislation will, if passed by the Senate and signed into law by the President, “require recipients of ‘universal service support’ for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms.” While language is included that clearly indicates the intention (and, and again, it’s a wonderful intention) is directed against sexual predators, the legislation instructs the FCC to define social networking websites and chat rooms with the following language:

In determining the definition of a social networking website, the Commission shall take into consideration the extent to which a website–

(i) is offered by a commercial entity;
(ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information;
(iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users;
(iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and
(v) enables communication among users.’.

If that’s the definition of social-networking, then I believe the House of Representatives has just banned the entire Internet. Those five bullet points are not only Web 2.0, they’re Web 1.0 — they’re the Web. Let me say politely to lawmakers and academics and media producers and everyone else who thinks the Internet is about the display of static information on a computer screen — or the exchange of e-mail. YOU’RE NOT GETTING IT. If you ban access to the “social network” you ban access to the Internet. What’s revolutionary here is not that display of static content on computer terminals — it’s the interactivity of all of that information and the way in which people are connected in radical new ways by an incredibly disruptive force called a link.

Because of the link the Internet is a social network. That’s what all this tagging and bookmarking and blogging is about. Look at the simple “commercial entity” called StumbleUpon. (As I try to follow what is taking place in the social-media arena, I’ll sign up for anything.) I thought StumbleUpon was merely a bookmarking service until I experimented with it a few months and discovered it is a powerful social-networking platform to connect people who enjoy the same types of websites (and not, just websites, but specific pages on websites). My Stumbleupon page has all sorts of potential social-networking features that I don’t use but look how one can build relationships around something as simple as clicking a button on a browser that says, “I like this page.” (If you’re registered on the site, it will suggest others who like the same types of pages you like.) This is either really scary or really amazing — and probably both. However, it can’t be banned, nor should it. We need to use it responsibly and teach our children how to use it responsibly — (i.e., don’t think you’re anonymous when you click on websites you know you shouldn’t be visiting. And don’t believe people are who they pretend to be — online or in real-life.)

I wish lawmakers could protect children from sexual predators by banning their access to social-networks. Unfortunately, they might as well try solving the problem by banning sexual predators’ access to oxygen.

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  • rex

    I don’t think I said anything about schools not being able to filter out sites. Am I missing something? Is it currently against the law for a school or library to prevent minors from accessing the types of content you describe? If you are suggesting that there is current law forbidding schools and libraries from keeping minors away from such content, then what you’re arguing may be relevant to what I am saying. However, this law is mandating schools and libraries to do something that is more over-reaching that filtering content.

    But back to your question as to where I would suggest where to start. First, I am not a fan of the federal government dictating what a local school or library should have as its policies. (Somehow, that doesn’t fit in the context of my branch of conservatism.) I’d prefer that the federal government not be making technology-specific grants to local schools and libraries — but that’s another argument for another day.

    Bottomline: I believe that if a local school wants to block MySpace or rexblog.com, fine with me. However, instructing the FCC to define what a social network is, based on what the law’s language instructs, will result in many unintentional consequences and will not save one child from sexual predators.

    Speaking of studies: Someone should do a study on how many sexual predators have been caught BECAUSE of the Internet — that have been lured by online stings, etc. I am for using technology to rid the world of sexual predator scum –

  • scott

    no, you didn’t say anything directly about schools filtering content, but the way i read you post, i took it as being against filtering content, period (which is why i asked about schools being able to restrict content). as you said, “If you ban access to the “social network” you ban access to the Internet.” i don’t see it like that, but everyone is different. I think they had to be fairly vague in their drafting of the language in attempt to be future-proof. if you’re okay with content filtering, as you say you are, should it really matter whether it is a school district, state or federal government that is placing the restriction on the students if the end result is the same? there are pros and cons. the good thing would be consistency across the board as to what is deemed “acceptbable.” but on the other hand, there would certainly be negative consequences as i think it would be easier to make changes to reflect changing trends on the internet at a local level. i’m not one for big gov’t, and was really defending more the idea about limiting content to children than defending the federal government’s attempt to be the decision-maker in this regard.

  • rex

    I think there is a tremendous difference in the federal government defining “social network” and the right of a local school and community to prevent minors from accessing porn on websites…or setting policies regarding use of chat services. This law is nothing more than election year pandering. And rather than “future proof” anything, the language of the law (and when it comes to laws, the words are what will be argued in court and used by regulators) opens up everything from rexblog to Amazon.com to be judged a social-networking site.

  • bhudgins

    I am all for banning access to oxygen for sexual predators, especially those who prey on children (there are those who prey on adults, but that’s another story imho). Let’s be sure – check the DNA evidence, whatever – but once sure, it is no O2 for you, pal. Or pal-ette. We’ve got our share of the latter here in TN.