Government officials have a new target in the ongoing Internet censorship wars: social networking Web sites.
Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and several members of the newly formed congressional “Suburban Caucus” recently introduced H.R. 5319, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA). It would require schools and libraries that receive federal funding to block minors’ access to social networking sites, like MySpace.com, that allow users to create Web pages or profiles or that offer discussion boards, chat rooms, or e-mail service.
The bill sponsors argue these sites are havens for online predators or child pornography. Unfortunately, censoring access to these sites will do little to weed out these problems, and instead merely block access to sites that are socially beneficial.
Social networking Web sites, especially the phenomenally successful MySpace.com, represent the fastest-growing portion of online traffic today. MySpace alone signs up an estimated 250,000 new users daily and has more than 76 million subscribers, making it one of the 10 biggest sites in the world. MySpace.com and hundreds of other sites, such as LiveJournal, Friendster, and Facebook, allow users to network with friends, build “buddy lists,” and share stories and pictures. These sites are the equivalent of digital town squares, where citizens gather, share culture, and build new friendships. And, contrary to popular opinion, these sites aren’t just aimed at kids. Eighty percent of MySpace users are over the age of 18, for example.
Of course, success in the online world can have some downsides, too. Once any Web site becomes popular enough, some bad guys will try to move in. Spammers, scammers, and other creeps will attempt to use the hot new technology or network for their nefarious purposes.
The worst of all the vermin are those who prey upon children. The Internet has given predators a new venue for their heinous crimes, and they can use social network sites to build relationships with minors under false pretenses and attempt to make personal contact later.
Censorship Accomplishes Little
This concern is what motivates DOPA and similar state efforts aimed at regulating such sites. But the cure in this case–censoring social networking Web sites–does not properly address the disease.
Indeed, the “shoot-the-middleman” regulatory approach DOPA embodies is indicative of what is wrong with most Internet regulation bills: They are far too sweeping in character and propose regulating legitimate sites and speech, to get at a small handful of bad actors.
If online predators are a problem, then lawmakers should be giving law-enforcement officials the resources they need to hunt down and prosecute those who might threaten our kids online, regardless of the Web site or network they use. Social networking Web sites need not be blocked to solve this problem. Censoring these Web sites isn’t going to stop online predators; they’ll just pop up elsewhere. After all, in a sense, the entire Internet is one big social networking site.
Consider an analogy from the old, offline world. Shopping malls are a sort of social networking site. And, unfortunately, there have been cases of children being abducted in or near malls in the past. But no one has ever seriously proposed solving the problem by shutting down all shopping malls or even restricting children’s access to them. That would be an illogical response and, more important, it would not solve the problem. Besides, the vast majority of activity taking place on most social networking sites is completely legal and socially beneficial.
Industry self-regulation will have to be part of the solution. Social networking Web sites have good business reasons to be concerned about the environment in which their users interact. Just as shopping-mall owners hired security officers to keep the peace and keep patrons and advertisers happy, so, too, will these Web sites.
MySpace already dedicates one-third of its staff to policing the site for problematic behavior, and it recently hired a former Department of Justice official to oversee online safety issues. Other sites have taken similar self-policing steps, and new identity- and age-verification systems are being deployed to combat fraudulent site profiles.
The Fitzpatrick bill, by contrast, is the regulatory equivalent of using an elephant gun to shoot a fly. We can protect our children without banning online town squares.
Adam Thierer ([email protected]) is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation.