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You Can't Delete Danger

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Senator Ted Stevens (R) from Alaska, who may be best known in tech circles for his speech calling the Internet a "series of tubes" has resurrected the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) under the new name -- Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. Andy Carvin nicely summarizes the legislation's three sections:

Title I would force video service providers, online or otherwise, to prevent the distribution of child pornography over their services. It then goes on to require that any site that includes adult materials to not include such materials on their homepage, and embed a mark within their site's pages that identifies their content as adult-oriented. This requirement would be incumbent upon the site's owners, and not the Internet service provider that hosts the site. Failure to do so could land a site owner in jail for up to five years.

Title II, Deleting Online Predators, is essentially the original DOPA legislation, but with some new twists. If enacted into law, it would enforce "a policy of Internet safety for minors that prevents cyberbullying and includes monitoring the online activities of minors and the operation of a technology protection measure with respect to any of its computers with Internet access." The bill would only apply to schools that receive federal Internet subsidies via the E-Rate program. School policy would also be required to protect "against access by minors without parental authorization to a commercial social networking website or chat room, and informs parents that sexual predators can use these websites and chat rooms to prey on children."

Title II wraps up with a mandate to the Federal Trade Commission to send out a "consumer alert" warning of the dangers of online social networks and other interactive websites. The FTC would also be required to set up a website outlining these dangers.

Title III focuses on protecting children's privacy. This part of the bill would make it illegal for anyone to sell or purchase private data about someone they know to be a child. The title includes an exception for any data that is exchanged with parental consent, such as during an e-commerce transaction.

Title II, or what Carvin is calling DOPA Jr., is a misguided lawmaker's attempt to use legislation to fix some of the messy issues that have arisen from totally wired teenagers' widespread use of the Net. I've been catching up on HBO's "The Wire" on DVD, and in some ways, I feel like forcing schools and libraries to block these sites is like going out to the streets of Baltimore, arresting drug dealers on one corner, only to have the trade move to another corner. Forcing teachers and librarians to block most of the Internet isn't going to eliminate cyberbullying or prevent teens from encountering the occasional predator. And while proponents argue that this legislation does allow an exception "during use by an adult or by minors with adult supervision to enable access for educational purposes, " Carvin points out that "many school districts do not give individual educators the ability to de-activate filters as needed, either preventing them outright or setting up so much red tape that teachers just don't bother."

The real problem is that there are too many senators, parents and teachers who may also view the internet as a "series of tubes." They are not fully internet literate, they don't understand how teens use the web and other technologies in ways that are different from adults, and/or they are too busy working to support their families or teaching to tests to learn themselves. Connecting schools to the internet and buying lots of hardware doesn't do much without lots of teacher training and support. The sad truth is that for most educators, this legislation, if enacted, just takes learning about the educational benefits of this technology and using it in the classroom off the table. And while it may eliminate some of the drama and bullying that can happen on these sites from happening on school computers, it still happens on phones or at home and is talked about at school. It also might be the final blow to a trailblazing teacher who really understands the potential educational value of social media or "Web 2.0" and is using it in innovative and creative ways in the classroom. It also undermines these trailblazers in their efforts to teach teens how to use the internet safely and ethically in a collaborative learning environment.

I really believe the answer to the real issues being raised by these technologies at home and at school will not be found in legislation but in education. Once school administrators, teachers and parents become truly internet literate, they can begin to teach teens how to use it safely and ethically and create policies that work at home and at school. Legislation and filters can't do that for you.