The Internet is an excellent medium for communication and collaboration. Possibly too excellent for Pennsylvania congressman Michael Fitzpatrick. This week he introduced his Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA, with the emphasis on dope) in the House, a bill aimed at blocking access to MySpace and Facebook in schools and libraries. The objective of this bill is to protect children from stalkers and predators on these sites, but this is a rather foolish and dangerous approach.
For starters, most of these sites are probably already blocked in schools and it doesn’t stop kids from accessing these sites at home. The only people who will be affected are poorer folks who cannot afford internet access at home. Of course, these sites are probably more dangerous for them too. Social networking is a powerful tool that has legitimate uses and should not be treated like porn.
Also problematic is the law’s wording, which describes a social networking site as a web site that “allows users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users; and offers a mechanism for communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, email, or instant messenger.” By that standard, sites like Blogger and AIM could be blocked as well. That would make the internet about as static as a book – something libraries do not need anymore of.
What really concerns me right now is what this means for colleges and universities (since I am a college student). Reports suggest that the law is directed at schools and libraries that get Internet access through a federal E-rate program. The E-rate program is supposedly limited to K-12 schools, so it seems that the Facebook may be safe – for now.
It’s nice when I can just repurpose school stuff into a blog post. Tonight I had to find an article on cyberstalking for class, so I located one from a couple weeks ago about how it is technically illegal to annoy someone online. Basically the law suggests that someone can be charged with a crime for anonymously publishing something with the intent to annoy. Many people are concerned about the laws implications and how it could threaten our first amendment rights.
The notion of being arrested for being annoying seems ridiculous upon first glance and it seems unlikely that anyone would actually pursue a case like this. Anonymity on the Internet has led to some very interesting discussion that could not come out any other way. Speaking publicly on the Internet can also become annoying. I don’t try to hide my identity on this site and as a result a tribute to my dad is being shared with dozens of football fans. This is an example of how public blogging led to mild public embarrassment. Now, imagine if I wrote something damaging about my dad or the football program elsewhere on the site – I would be in a ton of trouble.
Still, one could see some upsides to a law like this. I imagine John Seigenthaler could use this law to press criminal charges against the man who kept editing his Wikipeida entry. I would argue he would be justified in doing so too. Likewise, restricting Internet anonymity could prevent tragedies like that of Amy Boyer, who was killed by a young man who used Internet tools to anonymously locate her.
This specific law is stupid in a lot of ways and will probably be struck down by the courts in a year or two. The larger issue of regulating the Internet is still largely unanswered, however. While many have talked about space as a new frontier, cyberspace in many ways reflects our conceptions of the “Wild West”. So far we have been able to keep the Internet open and allow a free flow of information. I fear that as more and more people “move” into the world of cyberspace, laws will be created to protect people from this freedom.