Washington, D.C., July 26, 2006—The House is scheduled to vote today on the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), a bill that would restrict federal funding from libraries and schools that refuse to block chat rooms and social networking sites. This law is the latest legislative volley in the ongoing battle to regulate technology and tamp down on free speech.
Decisions as to whether or not to block these sites would be best done at a local level, where librarians and educators are intimately aware of the needs of their users. More importantly, the law would give the Federal Communications Commission broad power to define what constitutes a social networking site, setting up the likelihood that a vague, overly expansive definition could restrict far more than what is intended.
The DOPA vote comes on the heels mounting criticism of sites like MySpace, much of which has focused on calls for mandated age-verification schemes. Just as they did with video games and other technologies, legislators, attorneys general, and activist groups are pushing for a bevy of rules that would take parental authority and hand it over to the government.
Social networking websites may want to institute age verification programs on their own, but doing so should never be mandatory. Government mandates for such verification would require technological and logistical solutions that do not currently exist, as many teens do not possess the sort of identifying documentation that would be necessary for such a scheme to work. Moreover, calls to develop such identification would create the possibility for an array of unforeseen consequences, as there are inherent dangers in requiring minors to publicly register their identities.
The best age verification system is parental oversight, and parents should be wary of any rules that give the government more power over what their children can do. Proponents of such restrictions would do best to refocus their energies on encouraging parents to watch over their children’s activities rather than trying to turn that authority over to the government.