Monday, January 29, 2007

Problems With the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act...

Senator Ted Stevens has introduced the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. It is a bill that aims to protect children from online predators, but would really only have an effect on censoring legitimate content and limiting online participation even for websites with educational value.

As this Mashable article describes, the bill has three parts: 1) force video service providers like YouTube to prevent the distribution of child pornography over their services, 2) ban access to social networks and chat rooms in U.S. schools and libraries, and 3) make it illegal for anyone to sell or purchase private data about a child.

All three of these goals are admirable and worthy of pursuit. However, the bill in its current state is ripe with major problems. First of all, it is nearly impossible for video sharing websites like YouTube to verify the ages of people in the videos (remember, OTHER people are the ones who upload their vids, not YouTube itself). This is the classic example of policymakers who have no understanding of technology creating laws which are unenforceable and entirely symbolic, rather than developing real solutions.

Second, the provision to ban social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook from schools and libraries may also have some value, however implementing such a policy in the past has inevitably led to overly extensive regulation (aka - censorship). Internet content filters in libraries are notorious for censoring not only obscene and pornographic material, but also legitimate and CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED material. As it relates to children, the terms of this new bill specifically call for schools to filter any website that is "offered by a commercial entity, allows the creation of profiles, allows blogging or journals, allows users to enter personal information, or enables communication between users. In short: almost all interactive websites would be blocked".

Is it me, or does that basically describe the entire internet?! Lawmakers are fooling themselves if they believe that the World Wide Web of 2007 is a collection of static pages and encyclopedic information. The internet is fundamentally defined by interactivity and communication between users. According to the language of this bill, schools would be censoring not only the MySpaces and Facebooks of the world, but also Wikipedia, CNN, the New York Times, and the Nerfherder, among others.

Certainly, protecting children from sexual predators online is an objective that must be pursued. But how about some intelligence in lawmaking?


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