Ban 'Second Life' in schools and libraries, Republican congressman says

Because sexual predators may lurk in virtual world and on social-networking sites, Rep. Mark Kirk calls again for passing controversial legislation forcing zone blockage.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
Some politicos in the U.S. Congress may be embracing Second Life (pictured here is California Democrat George Miller's press conference in the virtual world last year). But Illinois Republican Mark Kirk says it's a danger zone for children and must be blocked, by law, on school and library computers. Linden Lab

A Republican congressman who has sponsored legislation banning access to social-networking Web sites in schools and libraries has found a new target of displeasure: Second Life.

Rep. Mark Kirk, who is seeking re-election this year, staged a press conference at a library in his suburban Chicago district on Tuesday to highlight what he called the "dangers" of the virtual world to children. Flanked by local officials, he also released a letter asking Federal Trade Commission Chairman William E. Kovacic to "take action to warn parents of the similar dangers and sexually explicit content found on Second Life."

Kirk said he was appalled that Second Life has no age verification features built into its registration process, and he claimed that there are "countless locations" outside of the service's teen-designated area where virtual prostitution, drug deals, and "other wholly inappropriate activities" occur.

According to a Chicago Tribune report, Kirk recounted an aide's failed attempt to create an avatar on the site as a 10-year-old--and a subsequently successful attempt to log in as an 18-year-old.

"Sites like Second Life offer no protections to keep kids from virtual "rape rooms," brothels, and drug stores," Kirk said, according to a press release. "If sites like Second Life won't protect kids from obviously inappropriate content, the Congress will."

Second Life creator Linden Lab, for its part, released a statement, according to various local news reports, saying, "Members of the Second Life community, including Linden Lab staff, actively monitor against minors accessing the (adult portion of the) service." But Kirk said company officials have acknowledged that it's possible for teens to get into the adult portion of the service, and vice versa.

Kirk's comments were yet another attempt to drum up support for a bill, which he reintroduced last year, known as the Deleting Online Predators Act.

That proposal would require schools and libraries that receive federal subsidies through a program called E-rate to certify that they've put in place a "technology protection measure" on all of their computers that "protects against access to a commercial social-networking Web site or chat room, unless used for an educational purpose with adult supervision."

The definition of "commercial social-networking Web site," however, appears to be broad enough to sweep up blogging and online-journaling services, as well as any site that allows users to create public profiles, from Amazon.com to Slashdot to Yahoo.

The bill would also require the Federal Trade Commission to issue a "consumer alert" outlining the potential "danger" of such Web sites because they can be accessed by child predators.

Similar legislation passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives by a 410-15 vote in 2006 but died in the Senate.

Despite the overwhelmingly favorable vote two years ago, the bill is not without controversy. The American Library Association is staunchly opposed to the proposal, arguing that it ignores the value of interactive Web applications as a learning tool, could block helpful sites, and would inhibit librarians' ability to teach youngsters about how to use the Web safely.

After all, even police agencies--including the Arlington County Police Department outside of Washington, D.C., just this month--are launching MySpace.com profiles these days.