Monday, July 31, 2006

Guardian Unlimited
Chatrooms may be banned in US schools to combat sexual predators

· Bill seeks to limit MySpace and other websites
· Opponents say proposed law casts the net too wide

Julian Borger in Washington
Tuesday August 1, 2006


Chatroom websites including MySpace, Facebook and Friendster could be banned in America's schools and libraries under legislation aimed at sexual predators that is working its way through Congress.

The deleting online predators act (DOPA), which was passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives last week, had been expected to go before the Senate this week, but opponents appeared yesterday to have postponed the battle there until next month. The bill identifies "social networking websites" as hunting grounds for paedophiles, and requires federally funded schools and libraries to limit access to them.

"This legislation is the first of its kind to address the growing use of social networking sites by sexual predators," said Michael Fitzpatrick, a Republican congressman and the bill's sponsor. "My bill will help parents protect their kids when they are not home."

The FBI estimates that one in five of the country's 24 million child internet users have received sexual approaches, and that as many as 50,000 sexual predators are prowling for children online.

The ban is not aimed at particular sites, but defines the kind of sites the Federal Communications Commission would be obliged to ban as: commercial entities that permit users to create online profiles with highly personal information and their own online journal, and which enable communication among users.

Opponents of the bill say it casts the net too wide and could cut young people off from a huge range of websites. There are thought to be as many as 300 social networking sites that could fit the law's description and more than half of all Americans between 13 and 17 belong to at least one.

"We think it is a very unwise bill," said Rick Weingarten, director of information technology at the American Library Association. "The definition that they tried to cobble together covers an enormous range of very beneficial applications. By blocking access to those applications only in libraries and schools what they have done is to block access to those kids who have no other way to get access."

He added: "People join these virtual groups for all sorts of beneficial reasons, including getting information or joining support groups ... You get in a morass every time you try to block technology."

But in both the US and in Britain many schools have already banned the use of online social networks because of fears about the amount of personal information users post online.

Some MySpace users have set up an online petition to rally opposition to the act. The petition, Save your Space, aims to gather more than 1m signatures in a month. The petition says: "Many of our nation's leaders are not intimately familiar with how social networking websites operate, and none of them have had computers and internet all of their life."

That point appeared to be underlined by Senator Ted Stevens, who lectured the chamber last month on the true nature of the web. "The internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck," Mr Stevens, the chairman of the Senate commerce committee, explained. "It's a series of tubes."