WASHINGTON, July 13 (UPI) -- Legislation designed to protect children from Internet predators could actually widen the digital divide without significantly reducing the exposure of young people to dangerous situations, according to testimony heard in Congress earlier this week.
The Deleting Online Predators Act proposes to prevent minors from using school or library computers to visit so-called social-networking sites like chat rooms, message boards and blogs. Popular Web sites like MySpace and Facebook, where members create and share personal profiles and communicate with other users, would be inaccessible too.
The perception among lawmakers is that these interactive Web sites attract pedophiles the way the neighborhood playground did.
"My bill protects children from a new danger on the Internet and that danger is online predators," Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the bill's sponsor, told United Press International, adding that "schools and libraries are one additional place where children are being preyed upon."
But even supporters of the law think its focus on public schools and libraries is unlikely to have much impact.
"The reality is that if you close off one opportunity, it doesn't mean that children will not access the networking Web sites. They'll do it at home or at a friend's house," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to members of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Internet. At the same time, he pointed out that the bill "is an important step toward making the Internet safer for our children and families."
A Department of Justice investigation found that one in five children between the ages of 10 and 17 receives unwanted sexual solicitations on the Internet. Cyber sex crimes mushroomed in the last decade. The FBI reported that from 1996 to 2005 it opened 2,028 percent more cases of illicit sexual exploitations by online offenders.
Some critics of the bill, including members of Congress, complain its wording is too vague as to be unwieldy and that it would cut off students from educational tools.
"We should be mindful of devising new requirements that may be plagued by terminological inexactitude," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
"This legislation would require schools to subjectively predict which sites may be misused," said Ted Davis, information-technology director of Virginia's Fairfax County public schools, which chose to block MySpace in November.
"Identifying and evaluating such sites would likely lead to blocking of legitimate instructional sites," he added.
These concerns do not convince the bill proponents to rewrite it.
"Our number one concern is that this law protects children from predators," Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told UPI. He added that the bill is part of a suburban agenda and will also impede drug-dealing and gang recruitment, which has been spotted on the so-called social networking sites.
The bill's reach is far from universal. The legislation will only apply to the public schools and libraries served by the federal E-rate program, which offers discounted telecommunications and Internet service. Many schools and libraries benefit from E-rate, but the ones serving low-income communities can rely upon it for as much as a 90-percent discount on service rates. If DOPA becomes law, poor schools and libraries would find it tougher than their richer counterparts to forsake the subsidized Internet access and develop their own online security guidelines.
"If the goal is protecting children, why should these requirements only apply to schools receiving E-rate funding, in other words, poorer schools?" Markey asked during the hearings.
"African-Americans and Hispanics are much more likely to rely exclusively on the library computer for Internet access than are their white and Asian counterparts," said Beth Yoke of the ALA to members of the House Subcommittee of Telecommunications and the Internet.
About one-third to one-half of public libraries received an E-rate discount in the past, according to the American Library Association. According to statistics from a 2002 Department of Commerce report, libraries are the exclusive Internet access source for three times as many blacks and twice as many Hispanics than whites. These numbers constitute a small minority of all Internet users. For instance, 87 percent of all teens have connected to the Internet at home, according to research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Several hearings have been held this year to examine Internet safety, and Fitzpatrick's bill is not the only piece of legislation seeking to regulate online activity. Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., introduced a bill in March to establish an office of Internet safety and public awareness in the Federal Trade Commission.
No further action is scheduled for DOPA as of Wednesday, but Kirk hopes it will be marked up before the House summer recess begins July 30.