Web sites like Amazon.com and MySpace.com may soon be inaccessible for many people using public terminals at American schools and libraries, thanks to the U.S. House of Representatives.
By a 410-15 vote on Thursday, politicians approved a bill that would effectively require that "chat rooms" and "social networking sites" be rendered inaccessible to minors, an age group that includes some of the Internet's most ardent users. Adults can ask for permission to access the sites.
"Social networking sites such as MySpace and chat rooms have allowed sexual predators to sneak into homes and solicit kids," said Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and co-founder of the Congressional Victim's Rights Caucus. "This bill requires schools and libraries to establish (important) protections."
Even though politicians apparently meant to restrict access to MySpace, the definition of off-limits Web sites is so broad the bill would probably sweep in thousands of commercial Web sites that allow people to post profiles, include personal information and allow "communication among users." Details will be left up to the Federal Communications Commission.
The list could include Slashdot, which permits public profiles; Amazon, which allows author profiles and personal lists; and blogs like RedState.com that show public profiles. In addition, many media companies, such as News.com publisher CNET Networks, permit users to create profiles of favorite games and music.
"While targeted at MySpace, the effects are far more wide-ranging than that, including sites like LinkedIn," said Mark Blafkin, a representative of the Association for Competitive Technology, which counts small- to medium-size technology companies as members. "Nearly any news site now permits these types of behaviors that the bill covers."
House Republicans have enlisted the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA, as part of a poll-driven effort to address topics that they view as important to suburban voters in advance of November's elections. Republican pollster John McLaughlin surveyed 22 suburban districts and presented his research at a retreat earlier this year. DOPA was part of the result.
"Social networking sites, best known by the popular examples of MySpace, Friendster and Facebook, have literally exploded in popularity in just a few short years," said Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican and one of DOPA's original sponsors. Now, he added, those Web sites "have become a haven for online sexual predators who have made these corners of the Web their own virtual hunting ground."
Fitzpatrick's re-election campaign is one reason why the Republican leadership, which is worried about retaining their slender House majority, arranged a vote on DOPA. Fitzpatrick, who represents a politically moderate district outside of Philadelphia, has found himself in a tight race against challenger Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran and prosecutor.
Technology lobbying groups, which were taken by surprise by this week's speedy approval of DOPA in the House, are now scrambling to throw up roadblocks to the measure in the Senate. Some expect that the Senate leadership will hold a vote as early as next week. (Libraries also oppose the measure.)
"This bill is well-intentioned, but it is highly overbroad and would create big obstacles to accessing sites that pose no risk to children," said Jim Halpert, a partner at law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, who is the general counsel for the Internet Commerce Coalition.
In a statement earlier this month, a representative of MySpace--now owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.--stressed that the company has taken steps this year to assuage concerns among parents and politicians. It has assigned some 100 employees, about one-third of its work force, to deal with security and customer care, and hired Hemanshu (Hemu) Nigam, a former Justice Department prosecutor, as its chief security officer.
DOPA has changed since an earlier version dated May 9. The version approved by the House (click here for PDF) does not define "chat rooms" and gives more leeway to the FCC in devising a category of verboten Web sites.
Both versions apply only to schools and libraries that accept federal funding, which the American Library Association estimates covers at least two-thirds of libraries. By slapping additional regulations on "e-rate" federal funding, DOPA effectively expands an earlier law called the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires libraries to filter sexually explicit material and which the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in 2003.
Opponents of DOPA said during the debate that it was rushed through the political process--it was, they said, rewritten on Wednesday night and had not even been approved by a congressional committee.
"So now we are on the floor with a piece of legislation poorly thought out, with an abundance of surprises, which carries with it that curious smell of partisanship and panic, but which is not going to address the problems," said Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. "This is a piece of legislation which is going to be notorious for its ineffectiveness and, of course, for its political benefits to some of the members hereabout."
Defining off-limits sites
DOPA does not define "chat rooms" or "social networking sites" and leaves that up to the Federal Communications Commission. It does offer the FCC some guidance on defining social networking sites (though not chat rooms):
"In determining the definition of a social networking Web site, the Commission shall take into consideration the extent to which a Web site--
(i) is offered by a commercial entity;
(ii) permits registered users to create an online profile that includes detailed personal information;
(iii) permits registered users to create an online journal and share such a journal with other users;
(iv) elicits highly personalized information from users; and
(v) enables communication among users."