Why Congress Should Drop DOPA

Why Congress Should Drop DOPA

BY Joshua Levy | Tuesday, August 22 2006

While much of the mainstream media was preoccupied with wars in the Middle East, child molesters, and whatever else flits across our screens, the U.S. House of Representatives recently decided to play to peoples' fears and passed by a vote of 410 to 15 a bill banning social networking sites from our schools. The Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, or DOPA, requires that all public schools outlaw the use of social networking web sites and chat rooms in order to receive federal funds for technology.

Though the bill is ostensibly aimed at sites like MySpace, which are full of risque images of partying youths, it would actually force schools and libraries to filter out any site that asks users to create identities.

The bill defines these sites as "commercial networking sites" and "chat rooms," terms that, as ArsTechnica recently noted, are extremely broad. According to DOPA, a "commercial networking site" is one that:

(i) is offered by a commercial entity;
(ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information;
(iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users;
(iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and
(v) enables communication among users.

That means not just sites like MySpace, but also Amazon.com and Blogger, and even the use of wikis could be banned.

All of these technologies are being used in classrooms around the country as teachers develop new curricula and pedagogy that incorporate the read/write web; this bill could put an immediate end to their work. Also, many poorer students depend upon public and school libraries to use the web. This legislation would effectively throw them offline. Many of us are excited about how these kinds of sites can be forums of civic participation, but DOPA would make it impossible for us to reach out to students and teach them about how to interact with online communities.

It appears that Representative Michael Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania and main sponsor of the bill, is using suburban voters' fear of online predation to rally conservatives for the 2006 mid-term elections.

There is hope. While 96% of the House -- Democrats and Republicans -- voted for DOPA in an effort to prove they are tough on child molesters, it still needs to pass through the Senate, so there is still time to talk to your senators and ask them not to vote for it. Many people in Congress simply have no idea what a social networking site is, or how it might be used for education, civic participation, or political organizing. Before they vote we need to tell our Senators why these things are so important.

For many, blogging is not only about writing but also about the ways that people can communicate and learn from each other, regardless of the subject. After noting that Lebanese and Israeli bloggers had initiated online conversations in the wake of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Will Richardson, who blogs about education and technology at Weblogg-ed, was saddened that, if DOPA is passed in the Senate, students will not have access to these kinds of conversations:

Sure, we can discuss the story. But fuggedabout actually showing the conversation to our kids or having them reflect on it on their own blogs where other people might be able to inform their thinking and learning. God forbid we forget to actually teach them how to stay safe from those Mid Eastern predators out there.

Richardson sees the passing of the bill as an easy way for Congress to convince the public they are tough on crime:

It's nothing more than an attempt to damn the technology instead of engaging the tensions of a globalized world. We don't want to do the tough work of understanding what the changes mean, good or bad. We just want to resist.

This legislation would effectively block teens and educators from accessing some the most important parts of the web -- widening the digital divide and limiting students' exposure to tools they need to learn. Vicki A. Davis, a blogger on Cool Cat Teacher Blog, writes:

These "trendy" chatrooms, wikis, and blogs are also amazing tools that are helping multinational businesses cooperate... The most valuable collaboration tools in the history of mankind must be taught to our children but through this act, the vast majority of Americans will be ignorant by design.

Not only is social networking an important tool for business, learning to collaborate and discuss has implications for the future of civic and political participation. Henry Jenkins, co-director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, told danah boyd that rather than these sites being threats to civic order, they strengthen it.

We can easily turn this around and see [social networking sites] as the training ground for future citizens and political leaders. Young people are assuming public roles at earlier and earlier ages. They are interacting with larger communities of their peers and beginning to develop their own styles of leadership. Across a range of issues, young people are using social network software to identify and rally like-minded individualism, forming the basis for new forms of digital activism.

Despite the bill's overwhelming support, there are some dissidents in Congress. On the floor of the House on the day DOPA passed, Representative Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington, said the bill is "a good press release, but it is not effective legislation addressing a huge problem threatening our children." Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, also stood up to the fearmongering: "This bill will not delete online predators. Rather, it will delete legitimate Web content from schools and libraries. Schools and libraries that serve students are the target of this legislation."

Back in May, before the bill was passed in the House, danah boyd summed up its problems:

There are so many amazing things that teens do with social technologies. To lose all of this because of the culture of fear is terrifying to me. I found out about my alma mater talking to strangers online in the 90s. I learned about what it means to be queer, how to have confidence in myself and had so many engaging conversations. Sure, i found some sketchy people too, but i learned to ignore them just as i learned to ignore the guys who whistled and honked from their cars when i walked to the movie theater with my best friend. We need to give youth the knowledge to know the risks of their actions, the structures to be able to come to us when something goes wrong and the opportunity to grow up and connect to their peers. Eliminating cultural artifacts because we don't understand them does not make our lives any safer, but it does obliterate so many positive interactions.

Oddly, there's been no outcry from the companies themselves, including MySpace, which now receives nearly 80 percent of all visits to social networking sites. It's up to Richardson, Davis, Jenkins, and others to convince the Senate of the usefulness of social software before it's too late. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has acted to slow things down in order to look more closely at the bill; hopefully he will inspire his colleagues to learn more about it. In the meantime, check out Save Your Space, a site operated by non-affiliated supporters of MySpace that was launched in response to DOPA. It offers information about the bill and a petition calling for its defeat.

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