House revives chat-room ban bill

A Republican congressman is floating yet another attempt to resurrect a contentious federal proposal designed to ban chat rooms and so-called social-networking Web sites in schools and libraries.

On Friday, Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, reintroduced the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA for short, in the U.S. House of Representatives. His action arrived about a week after legislation in his home state's legislature. Alaska Republican Ted Stevens has already introduced a similar effort in the U.S. Senate this year.

Kirk's bill appears to be identical to a version of the House proposal that earned overwhelming approval last summer. It would require schools and libraries that receive a certain breed of federal subsidies known as E-Rate to certify that they are blocking access to any "commercial social networking Web site or chat room unless used for an educational purpose with adult supervision."

"I believe this is an entirely appropriate action to help parents determine what their children can and cannot do online," Kirk said in a floor statement introducing his bill. "It seems foolish for the taxpayer to subsidize what amounts to a loophole by which children can circumvent their parentÂ’s wishes and unwittingly expose themselves to Internet predators."

Civil libertarians, the American Library Association, and a number of educational associations have objected to the mandate, saying it would undermine legitimate educational uses of social-networking sites and needlessly block sites that arguably pose no risk to children.

The bill says Congress intends to target "trendy" social networking sites (MySpace and the Facebook come to mind). But some argue that the definition that ultimately takes hold could prove broad enough to expel a wide range of sites, such as Amazon.com and the popular blog Slashdot, that allow users to socialize and to devise public profiles.

DOPA's Senate counterpart, called the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, goes further, also calling for revival of a U.S. Department of Justice-backed plan to require all sexually explicit sites to be labeled as such. It was proposed by Stevens on the first day that the 110th Congress was in session.

It remains unclear how the Republican-backed proposals will fare in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Although the House vote last year reflected broad bipartisan support for the bill, one of the few vocal opponents included Rep. John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over Kirk's bill. That means if Dingell gets his way, its passage may not be so certain this time around. So far, the measure has a dozen co-sponsors, only one of whom is a Democrat.

 

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