Libraries Fight Limits On Providing Net Access - InformationWeek

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5/15/2006
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Libraries Fight Limits On Providing Net Access

A new bill in Congress would remove federal funding from schools and libraries that allow children unsupervised access to sites that could reveal objectionable material. A professional group says this is redundant because another law already bans libraries from allowing children to view harmful content.

The American Libraries Association is fighting congressional efforts to limit access to MySpace and other social networking tools on the Internet.

A congressional delegation calling itself the Suburban Caucus introduced legislation last week to prevent schools and libraries from allowing minors to log onto MySpace and other social networking sites, saying they have become feeding grounds for sexual predators. The Deleting Online Predators Act is one of several bills aimed at satisfying suburban voters, who ranked child safety and gas prices high on a list of concerns in a recent poll.

The bill would remove federal funding from schools and libraries that allowed children unsupervised access to sites that could reveal objectionable material. The restrictions would apply to all sites that feature user profiles and discussion. In other words, they would prohibit minors' unsupervised school and library access to instant messaging, many e-mail services, chat rooms and social networking sites.

The ALA issued a statement Monday in which its president Michael Gorman described House Rule 5319 as too broad, redundant, and unnecessary. It points out that the Children's Internet Protection Act already requires libraries to prevent children from viewing harmful content.

"Further, the proposed law would block access to some of the Internet's most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications, essentially stifling library users' ability to participate fully in the educational opportunities the Internet offers," he said. "The library community is concerned with the need to protect children from online predators. We know that the best way to protect children is to teach them to guard their privacy and make wise choices. To this end, libraries across the country offer instruction on safe Internet use."

More than 76 million people are registered on MySpace, the sixth most popular English language Web site in the world. Adolescents, teens and young adults have been using the site and similar ones to keep in touch with friends and meet new people. Many users post photographs and personal information – including their schools, interests and activities.

In several high-profile cases, predators have used social networking sites to prowl for victims, gather information, feign shared interests, and track minors down in the real world. More than 200,000 profiles have been removed from MySpace. Operators have imposed age restrictions, and MySpace recently announced the hiring of a security chief.

"As the father of six children, I hear about these Web sites on a daily basis," Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican who sponsored the legislation, said in a prepared statement. "The majority of these networking sites lack proper controls to protect their younger users. Also, many parents lack the resources to protect their children from online predators."

The Federal Trade Commission already posts tips that parents can download and use as a starting point to discuss Internet safety with their children. The proposed legislation would go further by calling on the FTC to issue consumer alerts and by placing additional responsibility on schools and libraries.

The bill, which House Speaker Dennis Hastert supports, would also require the FTC to create a Web site with a Uniform Resource Locator, warning parents, teachers and other adults of online threats to children. The Web site would include information about social networking sites and outline what information users should withhold from profiles.

The Progress & Freedom Foundation released a paper last month chiding representatives, and particularly conservative ones, on attempts to further regulate minors' use of the Internet. The free-market think tank, which studies the digital revolution and its impacts on public policy, stated that there are better means to protect children. They include the use of technologies created for that purpose, as well as old-fashioned parental discussions, attentiveness and involvement.

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