Silicon Valley woke up yesterday, rubbed it's collective eyes and looked at a pretty big number. It wasn't YouTube's valuation or the number of parties that Valleywag attended the previous night; it was this: 410 to 15.
Four-hundred-and-ten members of the House of Representatives said, yes, let's pass the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) -- covered here and here at The 463 in May -- and keep sites like MySpace and Facebook from minors in schools and libraries that receive a form of federal funding. Fifteen said perhaps we should focus on the criminals and not a communications medium.
The tech community (at least those who blog and comment on blogs) seem to be shocked by this result. (Old-school media has ignored it). Consider TechCrunch. It's probably the most well-read blogs that focuses on the emerging Web 2.0 companies. Consider its reaction today:
410-15 was a shocking vote. I write about it here because it has the potential to impact a huge portion of our readership and the companies we profile on this site. ... perhaps it’s just symbolic of the divide in the US between on one hand those of us who are excited about the incredible potential of web services to enable personal creativity and on-demand global communication and on the other hand those who believe that the internet is just a series of tubes.
Using this logic, here's a graphical representation of this divide. The red represents evolved, Web savvy members of Congress. The blue represents mindless dinosaurs who want to bring the country back to the halcyon days of black & white television. Or, in other words, Web 2.0 is totally screwed if you take a 410 to 15 vote literally.
Instead, we'd suggest taking even another way of looking at this. It won't pay to further polarize this debate right now and it would be most advisable to get out of your cafes, conference rooms and live/work lofts to figure out how a vote like this could possibly happen. We'll try to help.
Techies are fixated on what is next, but this vote provides a good opportunity to step back and consider what is now. And, what is now is that you've already done a pretty incredible job of integrating technologies and new communications mediums into all facets of American life. Kids treat the Web today liked they treated the phone and the TV only 10 years ago. MySpace is a big deal in a lot of homes with white-picket fences at this very minute. (Pew reported in testimony on the bill that 87% of Americans of middle- and high-school age go online.)
Now, consider why the FCC has all those onerous rules on what you can say and show on broadcast TV. Hint: It has something to do with TV's relevance and power in American culture.
You wanted ubiquity, relevance and mad large traffic figures. If you didn't want the attention of politicians, you should have been careful what you wished for. And, then you should have remembered that your network of friends and work colleagues are probably a lot different than those learning about MySpace for the first time at a PTA meeting.
What "They" Think
But, since the genie is out of the bottle, than how about a journey into the other side:
- NBC's Dateline has been running an ongoing series about kids being victimized online called "To Catch a Predator" since 2004. The stings on the show have had such a dramatic impact on Congress that the reporter, Chris Hanson, was called to testify about the problem.
- Spend one minute watching this Houston news station report on how an old guy can track down a high school student and a coed with info found on MySpace and Facebook, respectively.
"Naperville, Illinois, a city in my district that has twice been voted by Money magazine as the top city in the Nation to raise children, has witnessed two high-profile cases in the past two months. Thanks to the Naperville police and the Illinois State Police, the two crimes were uncovered before the predators met the children."
Just this week back in my district in Tavares, Florida, prosecutors are picking a jury to try the case of John Couey, the man accused of raping and killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Sexual predators like John Couey not only stalk our children on the playground and at the mall, but also over the Internet on Web sites like MySpace.com. (Ed note: There are no reports that MySpace had anything to do with this abduction).
- Here's what the Attorney General of Texas had to say in testimony...
...the great weight of the problem must be shouldered by the very creators and hosts of these networking sites and chat rooms that provide the previously non-existent opportunity for child predators. Social networking sites and chat rooms have created an environment in which predators target their next victim and plot their next attack. Predators use these web locations as a starting point for raping a child! The creators and hosts of these networking sites are not the predators who commit the crime, but they create the opportunity for the criminal to carry out his crime.
- From the testimony of a Pennsylvania county DA...
Despite my exposure to all kinds of criminal behavior, I, like many of my colleagues,
have been shocked and dismayed by the latest rage, politely known as
“social networking sites”, but commonly known as MySpace, Friendster,
Facebook and Xanga.... The internet and these social networking sites have redefined,
reinvented and reinvigorated child predators, drug dealers and bullies.
- Media coverage has stoked fears and pollster say that this is a big issue. Most importantly, Republican members of Congress find that MySpace and co. are freaking out suburban swing-voters in key congressional battleground districts.
The Realities of DOPA
Add together constituent complaints, law enforcements urgings, hyperventilating media reports and, regrettably, very real instances of Internet-enabled crime and you get legislation that takes a hit on social networking sites. Also add the fact that there are probably only four or five weeks left of congress being in session and an sweaty-palm election on the other side and you get DOPA rush-delivered by c-section (it rewritten Wednesday night without committee approval).
So, what's DOPA? Let's look at the actual language as it stands today. It's purpose is:
"to amend the Communications Act of 1934 to require recipients of universal service support for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms.
The universal services subsidy that helps pay for Internet access in schools and libraries that have applied and have been granted it is called the E-Rate. Both private schools and public schools can receive it. One report notes that schools receive about 85% or $1.9 billion of the $2.25 billion E-Rate funds dispersed annually. The American Library Association says that those remaining E-Rate funds touch two-thirds of libraries. The same study looks at the impact of E-Rate in Texas and notes that:
...the average E-Rate grant receiving district in 2003 was awarded about $100 per student in the district, or about 2% of the average expenditure per student in Texas that year. Third, the E-Rate program is targeted toward economically disadvantaged schools within districts. This subset of all schools will receive a relatively large portion of the funds.
Therefore, the impact of the E-Rate is minimal is most wealthy districts and more significant in poorer districts. (And we thought that this was a suburban voter push?) To see how the E-Rate impacts schools and libraries in your state go here for 2006 funding reports.
Anyway, this funding could theoretically be revoked if schools didn't "protect against access to a commercial social networking website or chat room unless used for an educational purpose with adult supervision."
And, what's got the blogosphere in an uproar is the vague language on how a "social networking website or chat room" is defined. The bill doesn't actually do it. It asks the FCC to do it, but provides the following guidelines.
The Commission shall take into consideration the extent to which a website--
(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.
You can use your imagination on the sites that this could possibly cover only using these guidelines.
It might seem odd to question the viability of a piece of legislation that just passed 410 to 15, but the Senate is not a slam dunk. Again, the clock is ticking and since there are so many obvious issues with the how the proposed law is drafted, if techies and librarians can convince the Senate that they need to, at least, go through the process to revise the bill than it might need be punted to next year.
On the other hand, the House Republicans who are banking part of their election strategy on this bill, will clearly ask for smooth sailing.
There's one bit of oddness here that needs to reviewed. Rarely do you have such strong rhetorical opponents of legislation vote for it. Here's the roll-call. Just look at voted for and against and you'll notice the following statement makers in the Yea category:
Rep. John Dingell: (The bill) is, in a nutshell, going to be as useful as side pockets on a cow in addressing the problem about which we are all deeply concerned... The process stinks. The legislation is weak. The legislation will be ineffective, it will accomplish nothing, and we will all share red faces about this bumbling endeavor.
Rep. Jay Inslee: I hate to spoil this garden party, but this is not, in truth, suburban legislation, it is substandard legislation. And the reason for that is that it is, in effect, a good press release, but it is not effective legislation addressing a huge problem threatening our children.
Rep. Bart Stupak: I take a back seat to no one when it comes to my dedication to tracking down, prosecuting and locking up child predators. I have helped lead the child predator investigation in the House, and I have participated in six hearings on this issue. Unfortunately, child predators are not the target of today's bill. 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.
Rep. Ed Markey: I intend to vote for this bill in order to move the process forward, but ultimately, I think that we will need to explore other additional solutions and further revisions.
The last comment from Markey makes you wonder if the Dems think that the bill is so poorly written that they preferred to send along a bill to the Senate that just cries out for revisions (and secretly breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn't tweaked with their participation in committee). And, since so many Dems voted for it (including Silicon Valley's Anna Eshoo), it reduced the wedge issue impact/incentive with Senate Republicans. Or, they are just trying to have it both ways. You choose.
The Big Picture
Do you really need another example that the Internet is now on the verge of being a regulated medium? (See our post on online video regulation). Even if DOPA doesn't make it through, just the mere suggestion that the FCC be the arbiter of how this law is enforced should be enough to send shivers up the spine of the collective Web community. The FCC doesn't easily cede regulatory jurisdiction (regardless of how small). It swallows it up. (See TV).
Moreover, even traditional Internet allies in Congress knock DOPA for not going far enough in having an impact on nefarious dealings on the Web. This issue isn't going away. It's just going to get more and more complicated for Web companies building businesses off of social interactions.
One thing is for sure, if all those who touch the social networking space don't do more to effectively communicate to Congress and those who influence policymakers, than they will be in a world of hurt. Facebook is incredibly fortunate to have Internet privacy legal expert Chris Kelly on board and testifying in front of Congress. (In fact, his experience netted him the praise of the testifying Texas AG who called Facebook's efforts a model for the rest of the industry). PFF's Adam Thieier is another wise voice in the debate. The ITAA is the only big tech trade group that has come out against DOPA so far.
But, more leaders, soldiers and outreach are needed if this quickly snowballing issue doesn't become one that is a major debate topic during the 2008 Presidential elections. Bring together techies, educators and librarians. Engage and involve law enforcement. Get out there and balance the media coverage of the "evils of MySpace."
Most importantly, don't just say no to legislation (however sloppy) that deals with a real problem. Work to come up with solutions.
We'll see if DOPA is a wake-up call to the 2.0 crowd or is an alarm that is quickly silenced in favor of debating the merits of the 43rd new tagging company this year.