On July 11, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing to examine H.R. 5319, a bill that would regulate minors’ use of commercial social networking websites and chat rooms at schools and libraries that receive discounted service through the federal Universal Service Fund.
In his opening remarks, Chair Fred Upton (R-MI) stated that “Congress has a responsibility to ensure that, to the extent that a federal program is involved, it is doing all that it can to ensure that children are protected from online dangers. H.R. 5319 represents yet another step in making our children’s online experience at school or at the library safe.”
Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-MA) expressed his reservation with limiting the application of the bill only to schools and libraries receiving reduced rates through the Universal Service Fund. He stressed that this funding mechanism should not be “a legislative hook for federal involvement in this area.” Rep. Markey said that since the goal is to protect children, the requirement outlined in the legislation should have a universal application extending to every school.
H.R. 5319 is intended to protect minors from “obscene or indecent material,” and from being subjected to “unlawful sexual advances.” The bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to publish annually a list of social networking sites and chat rooms that have been shown to “allow sexual predators easy access to personal information of, and contact with, children,” after first gathering input from a new advisory board and “appropriate agencies with experience regarding procedures and actions to prevent minors from being targeted by adults for predatory behavior, exploitation, or illegal actions.” The Federal Trade Commission would be required to alert consumers to the potential dangers of Internet child predators, and to create a website that would serve as a resource for information to be shared by parents, teachers, and school administrators.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott stated that social networking sites and chat rooms must police themselves more effectively because they “provide the previously non-existent opportunity for child predators.” He recommended that social networking sites structure their systems so that parents have the option of blocking their children’s access to those sites.
Bucks County, Pennsylvania First Assistant District Attorney David Zellis expressed strong support for the legislation, saying that educating parents and children about the dangers of the Internet and limiting access to certain sites during the school day would help put children’s safety first. He asked, “If you knew that a child molester was going to the library or to a school and grooming children for future sexual exploitation, would you allow such behavior to go on? Of course not. But that is exactly what is going on when children in school or at the library are permitted to freely access commercial networking sites.” Mr. Zellis stated that such sites pose dangers to children as evidenced by criminal activities carried out on MySpace by sexual predators, drug dealers, and street gangs.
On behalf of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), Michelle Collins, the director of the Exploited Child Unit, shared the outcome of a “Dialogue on Social Networking Sites,” which NCMEC hosted in June. The discussions on the popularity and misuse of this technology and ways to help keep children safer demonstrated that “operators of social networking sites don’t want their customers to be endangered by their sites, but at the same time want to remain competitive in this booming market.” She further stated that “more restrictions will cause teens to go somewhere else that has fewer restrictions, with the unintended consequence of increasing their chances of being victimized.” Ms. Collins emphasized the importance of education and teen engagement in ensuring children’s online safety.
Ted Davis, information technology director for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in Virginia, stated that, although FCPS supports the goals of the proposed legislation, it opposes the bill in its current form. He contended that “the legislation would not substantially improve the safety of our students, and it will place an added burden on schools.” Because of the broad definition of social networking sites that may easily be misused to subject students to unlawful sexual advances, Mr. Davis argued that subjective evaluation of such sites would likely lead to the blocking of legitimate instructional sites. He suggested other methods to help protect students by pursuing those individuals who would do harm to children, and by helping to educate and prepare students to be safe citizens of the Internet.
Executive Director of the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association Beth Yoke spoke on behalf of librarians who believe that “this legislation would lead to the blocking of essential and beneficial interactive web applications and would further widen the digital divide.” She argued that the legislation would restrict access to technology in the communities that need public access the most. Ms. Yoke further emphasized education and local decisionmaking as the way to solve the problems addressed by the bill, not through a federal law blocking access to the Internet.
Parry Aftab of WiredSafety.org, Chris Kelly of Facebook, and Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project also testified at the hearing.