Lawmakers take aim at social-networking sites

Proposed law would cordon off access to sites such as MySpace and LiveJournal from schools and libraries.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
MySpace.com is facing a new threat on Capitol Hill.

MySpace and other social-networking sites like LiveJournal.com and Facebook are the potential targets for a proposed federal law that would effectively require most schools and libraries to render those Web sites inaccessible to minors, an age group that includes some of the category's most ardent users.

"When children leave the home and go to school or the public library and have access to social-networking sites, we have reason to be concerned," Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, told CNET News.com in an interview.

Fitzpatrick and fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, on Wednesday endorsed new legislation (click here for PDF) that would cordon off access to commercial Web sites that let users create public "Web pages or profiles" and also offer a discussion board, chat room, or e-mail service.

That's a broad category that covers far more than social-networking sites such as Friendster and Google's Orkut.com. It would also sweep in a wide range of interactive Web sites and services, including Blogger.com, AOL and Yahoo's instant-messaging features, and Microsoft's Xbox 360, which permits in-game chat.

Fitzpatrick's bill, called the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA, is part of a new, poll-driven effort by Republicans to address topics that they view as important to suburban voters. Republican pollster John McLaughlin polled 22 suburban districts and presented his research at a retreat earlier this year. Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, is co-sponsoring the measure.

The group, which is calling itself the "Suburban Caucus," convened a press conference on Wednesday to announce new legislation it hopes will rally conservative supporters--and prevent the Democrats from retaking the House of Representatives during the November mid-term election.

Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick

For its part, MySpace has taken steps in recent weeks to assuage concerns among parents and politicians (Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly also took aim at MySpace this week). It has assigned about 100 employees, about one-third of its workforce, to deal with security and customer care, and hired Hemanshu (Hemu) Nigam, a former Justice Department prosecutor as chief security officer last month.

"We have been working collaboratively on security and safety issues with an array of government agencies, law enforcement and educational groups, nonprofits and leading child safety organizations," said Rick Lane, vice president for government affairs at MySpace owner News Corp. "We've also met with several state and federal legislators and are working with them to address their concerns. We hope this healthy dialogue will continue."

Fitzpatrick, who represents a suburban district outside Philadelphia, acknowledged that MySpace "is working" on this. Still, he said, children are "unattended on the Internet through the course of the day" when they're at libraries and schools.

"My bill is both timely and needed and will be very well-accepted, certainly by the constituents I represent," Fitzpatrick said.

Backers of the proposal argue that it's necessary to protect children. Hastert said on Wednesday that it "would put filters in schools and libraries so that kids can be protected... We've all heard stories of children on some of these social Web sites meeting up with dangerous predators. This legislation adds another layer of protection."

To curb teenage access to interactive Web sites, Republicans chose to target libraries and schools by expanding a federal law called the Children's Internet Protection Act.

That law, signed by President Clinton in December 2000, requires schools and libraries that receive federal funding to block access to off-color materials. Librarians challenged it in federal court on First Amendment grounds, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law by a 6-3 vote in June 2003.

DOPA would add an additional requirement. It says that libraries, elementary and secondary schools must prohibit "access to a commercial social-networking Web site or chat room through which minors" may access sexual material or be "subject to" sexual advances. Those may be made available to an adult or a minor with adult supervision "for educational purposes."

Lynne Bradley, director of the American Library Association's office of government relations, said she was still reviewing the legislation. She added that: "We're as protective of kids as any other protection in this whole field, but we do know there are legitimate uses (of social-networking sites)."

"ALA is always in favor of having quality and detailed education on how best to use the Internet and these other digital tools and the best user is an informed user that knows the risks, how to avoid them, and knows how to keep him or herself safe," Bradley said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, there have been 25,707 agreements to provide federal funding to school districts or individual schools, and 3,902 agreements to libraries or library systems. The ALA estimates that as many as two-thirds of libraries receive federal funding and would be affected by DOPA.

DOPA would also require the Federal Trade Commission to set up a Web site about the "potential dangers posed by the use of the Internet by children" and order the Federal Communications Commission to create a committee and publish a list of Web sites "that have been known to allow sexual predators" access to minors' personal information.

Rosa Aronson, director of advocacy for the National Association of Secondary School Principals also said her organization did not currently have a position on DOPA.

"We are grappling with the tension between promoting our normal policy, which is to promote local control for schools, and on the other end of the spectrum, there is the issue of protection of students," Aronson said.

Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the free-market Progress & Freedom Foundation, was not as reticent. "This is the next major battlefield in the ongoing Internet censorship wars: social- networking Web sites," he said.

"Many in government will want to play the role of cyber traffic cop here, just as they have for other types of speech on the Internet," Thierer said, adding that it will "chill legitimate forms of speech or expression online."

Laws restricting Web sites tend to be challenged in the courts. The ALA, for instance, sued to overturn the Communications Decency Act in 1996 and the library-filtering requirement a few years later.

But DOPA seems to have been written to benefit from the high court's 2003 ruling that library filtering was permissible. Bob Corn-Revere, a partner at the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine who has argued before the Supreme Court, said the eventual fate of DOPA may depend on whether it's implemented narrowly or broadly.

Even so, Corn-Revere said, "treating MySpace sites like poison seems like an extreme overreaction."

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.