Closing Public Access to Social Networks: Should Web Sites or Parts of Them Have Ratings?

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CNET reports that the House just passed (by a 415 to 15 vote) the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) (text of the bill here)

The bill seeks to reduce, if not eliminate, the ability of sexual predators to use social networking sites to prey on teens at least when the teen user is at a school or library that receives federal funding which according to the article is at least two-thirds of libraries in the United States. The goal is laudable but the bill, which leaves the definition of social networking to the FCC (nice dodge there), mandates the FCC shall consider whether the site: “(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.”

As the article note the language is so broad that not only MySpace but Amazon, Slashdot, and even the conservative would be subject to the law. Indeed, blogs, parts of Yahoo!, and more would no longer be available to students or those who do not have computers at home. Of note to this readership, a Pew report found that 38% of 12-17 year olds read blogs and 19% create them. To me encouraging young people to write and read more is a goal we should keep in mind as well as protecting them from online nuts.

Another Pew report on teen Internet usage found 87% of teens are online. 81% play games but 76% read news. The report points out that of the 13% who are not online, they are “clearly defined by lower levels of income and limited access to technology. They are also disproportionately likely to be African-American.” Yet despite the possibility that the bill will take away access to lower income groups, note that in general 78% access the Internet at school and 54% at a library.

What does this move say about access to information by teens? It seems crazy to try and have schools or libraries police teens’ activities and the definitions are so broad that healthy activities are curtailed. Maybe some sort of rating system would make sense. I am not sure that it would, but as a quick thought it seems better than shutting off access to a growing, key part of American social and in some cases mental growth (in a sense I think Zittrain’s Generative Internet has some some insights here in that it addresses the tensions between openness and security on the Internet). I could be missing something here and I would love feedback on ways to protect youth users without cutting them off from the Web in public places. My instincts are that parents should be sitting down with kids and continually teaching them about the online equivalent of “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”

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7 Responses

  1. anon says:

    Wow, this has to be one of the worst ideas I have ever read. Do you understand the amatuer revolution bubbling at your feet or are you too isolated in the ivory tower?

    Did you think about how a rating systems would work? Of course not, because that would require an understanding of how content is created on the internet. The majority of content is created by amatuers. All of the top popularized sites on the internet are a fraction of the internet’s total traffic.

    Since amatuers create the bulk of the content on the internet–not media companies–its inefficient to have a private organization monitor every site and/or government agency monitor every site on the internet. The cost of implementing a ratings system would significantly outweigh any perceived security benefits. In other words, do you think China’s internet regime is a good idea (probably not) so why would you import it to the United States.

    Ok, so your going to argue. Well, how about for the big sites then. Here comes the classic definitional argument. What’s a big site? Who should define what a big site is? Is it really worth going into this discussion? Of course not, because nothing’s broke.

    This whole MySpace is dangerous argument is a nice convenient way for newspapers and other main stream media outlets to sell their media to nervous over-protective parents. For those of us who actually used the internet throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, we remember when the Main Stream Media learned about chat rooms. News flashes spread through the globe that predators would find your child and hunt them down.

    Predators are the problem, not the technology. I agree with your final point. Parents should teach their children to avoid strangers, especially stranges in on-line spaces.

  2. Deven Desai says:

    Please note, I do not endorse ratings. As I said it was a quick thought and “I am not sure that it would [help/work].” Your vehemence is precisely why I think that the system must be discussed. The problem is that taking the open at all costs approach may not be viable because of the general tenor about security and safety in this context and in others such as online surveillance. As such, ratings as an option may be taken as a short hand for the industry taking some role in keeping sites open. That being said private ratings systems are open to criticisms too.

    Ad hominem attacks aside, given your claim about your early use of the Internet, you may want to read the Zittrain article. I don’t have it in front of me but if I recall correctly, it tracks some of your point about the history of use. But it offers the possibility that whether we like it or not as more people use the Internet concerns about security and other areas will push people to limit the generative capacity in favor of security. Although he does not address the question of the post directly, his point that changes in the type of consumers who use the Internet and changes in their interests could start to push policy away from the openness you describe and towards regulations that are undesirable seems to overlap here.

    His end point about compromises might not be one you like but it is why I hoped people would jump in. I prefer in this case that people take some repsonsibility for their kids and not pursue gross solutions to such problems. BUT the fact is that many people simply jump on and say YES! to these types of bills so the challenge is to push back with more than “Keep it open.”

    Pointing to the key role of parents may help but more on how openness will help kids would help too.

    For that matter, I like your point about having seen this claim of the sky is falling before. Given your experience with the Internet, pointed information about how openness helped your growth and more concrete examples of the ongoing battle between hype and reality could be useful too.

  3. mrshl says:

    it seems like a better idea might be to focus on the technology of social networking sites. for example, congress could require sites to build in meaningful privacy controls that allow users to choose who can view their content online. myspace resisted this for a while (because user-created content is the reason people visit their site). but they’ve come around. livejournal (six-apart’s teen focused blog-ware) is a model in this area, as they give give teens using their system enormous control over what friends and strangers can access. teens have shown they will use these tools to protect themselves. of course, they might use it to keep their content safe from relatives and school administrators too. my understanding is that’s precisely how they use it. but that’s a safety side effect parents and legislators ought to be willing to live with.

  4. Although I’m not sure that federal legislation is the best tool here, I don’t think the concept is severely flawed. I’m surprised schools haven’t done this voluntarily. All public and private schools that I am familiar with limit access on campus to students and registered visitors (that includes parents). If you go to your neighborhood school today, you’ll find most of the doors locked to entry from the outside. These policies keep out lurking predators, whether sexual predators or drug dealers or others. They are a bit annoying for parents who just want to sneak a forgotten lunch box into a locker, but they seem to be here to stay. If I were a school administrator, I would do the same thing to my Internet access and control what persons come in to our cyberspace. If a school wants to use the Internet to encourage writing, journaling, and broadening horizons, the school can create a closed network made up of students in their school or district or other schools through some sort of agreement (remember pen pals?).

    Before the Internet, schools experimented with televisions in classrooms. These televisions didn’t get 180 channels — just the ones the schools wanted and some made especially for schools (CNN in the classroom or something). Just because technology allows individuals to do something they enjoy doesn’t mean that students have to be allowed to do it during school. I wasn’t allowed to pass notes in study hall, so I can’t imagine that I would have had a liberty interest in surfing MySpace during study hall.

  5. Ken Arromdee says:

    Christine, I think the major problem with this is the library part, not the schools part.

  6. L. says:

    Interestingly, just today, Facebook has instituted a requirement that all users provide their full birthdate (Month, Day, Year) in their profile (but you can keep your birthday hidden from other users):

    “As a safety measure, Facebook is requiring everyone to indicate their birthday. You can still hide your birthday from your profile on the Edit Profile page, but we need this information in your account. Please indicate your full birthday (month, day, and year)”

    A result of this legislation, perhaps?

  7. Deven Desai says:

    Thanks for all the inputs. I think the examples of sites taking some initiative to limit the information that can be shared (as in the Facebook change) is a start. As for Christine’s point, yes schools limit access and I agree that just because it is fun does not mean it must be allowed. Yet with the closed loop idea, it has merits but I wonder whether such a move would reduce the dynamic nature of social networking to the point that the growing blogging activity (both reading and writing blogs) would be unattractive as a psuedo-social network and uncool. In fact might it make the other sites tempting as forbidden fruit? In the overall balance this last issue may return to Christine’s point about you can’t have everything just because it is there.

    Still how will schools be able to monitor all the online activities? Who would set the rules on what is available and what isn’t? Again these may be best sorted out by parents and the schools rather than federal legislation.

    As a practical matter in schools with computer labs would a proctor wander and watch all the students? This question is not a rhetorical one. I am curious how viable such a system would be? How big are the labs? How many proctors would be needed? What about the move to notebooks? If students have their own notebooks, are schools responsible because they provide the network access? In addition, as Ken noted libraries may be the harder part of this idea.

    Furthermore, I still think the definition in the bill is so broad that if schools took Christine’s approach under the bill’s definition, it would not be viable to parse what sites require supervision from those that don’t. The text says “protects against access to a commercial social networking website or chat room unless used for an educational purpose WITH ADULT SUPERVISION.” (emphasis added)

    I may be misreading the text but it seems that the definition would mean that schools would have to supervise use of Google or Yahoo! Schools monitor and restrict access to outsiders but when it comes to research and the like how would this work?

    Under the definition both Google and Yahoo! are social networking sites:

    (i) [are] offered by a commercial entity? Yes.

    (ii) permit[] registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information? Yes.

    (iii) permit[] registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users? Yes.

    iv) elicit[] highly-personalized information from users? Yes.

    (v) enable[] communication among users? Yes.