Immigration, tax cuts, gas price relief, gay marriage and ... MySpace? Social networking sites were thrown into the mix as an election-year issue this week when Republican Congressman Michael G. Fitzpatrick introduced a bill aimed at prohibiting anyone under 18 from gaining access to sites like MySpace and Facebook on public school or library computers.
The father of six put forward the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) over his concern about reports of pedophiles trolling the sites looking for teenage victims, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
"The social networking sites have become, in a sense, a happy hunting ground for child predators," said Fitzpatrick, who sees his proposed legislation as "essentially a bill to protect children from the Internet."
The act would also ban access to chat rooms, block a variety of online forums and require the Federal Trade Commission to create a special Web site for parents and teachers warning of the potential dangers of social networking sites. According to the Times, the bill — which has support from House Speaker Dennis Hastert — was proposed as part of a legislative agenda aimed at suburban voters in a pivotal Congressional election year amid reports of arrests of sexual predators using some networking sites to lure children.
According to the wording of the bill, it aims to prohibit "access by minors without parental authorization to a commercial social networking Web site or chat room through which minors may easily access or be presented with obscene or indecent material; may easily be subject to unlawful sexual advances, unlawful requests for sexual favors, or repeated offensive comments of a sexual nature from adults; may easily access other material that is harmful to minors."
By the bill's broad definition, an online social network is "a commercially operated Internet Web site that allows users to create Web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users and offers a mechanism for communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, e-mail, or instant messenger."
Though some school districts across the country, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, have taken action to block access to MySpace from their computers, the Times questioned whether the legislation raises questions about how much the federal government should regulate the Internet and the value of social networking sites in an era in which many teens have few real places to gather.
"There's so much fear, even in suburban regions, where teenagers aren't allowed to just go and hang out," said Danah Boyd, a University of California-Berkeley graduate student who is studying social networking sites. Boyd said teens, particularly those from poor families or rural areas, need school and library computers to gain access to social networking sites. "Of course there are bad situations. But ... I can tell you a number of kids who have been molested in school by teachers," Boyd said. "Does that mean we don't send kids to school?"
MySpace, which has more than 72 million registered users, was purchased last year by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which recently hired a former federal prosecutor to patrol the site for potential predators and has been running public-service announcements on its Web sites and TV channels warning children to be careful of strangers online.
The Federal Trade Commission issued a consumer alert on Tuesday about social networking sites with safety tips for parents and kids in response to letters from some members of Congress, but Fitzpatrick said he doesn't think that's enough. "The Internet is a great resource for children. It's a wonderful thing when used well ... but we need to recognize there's a real risk in the interactive social networking sites," he said. "It's a problem for families. It's a problem for all of us."
The proposed bill has an allowance for using online social networks for educational purposes, allowing the filtering to be turned off by adults or minors visiting the sites under adult supervision.