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.