Earlier, i spoke about how the MySpace panic was likely to cause legislation proposals. Today, Congressperson Fitzpatrick proposed legislation 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.” This legislation broadly defines social network sites as anything that includes a Profile plus an ability to communicate with strangers. It covers social networking sites, chatrooms, bulletin boards. Obviously, the target is MySpace but most of our industry would be affected. Blogger, Flickr, Odeo, LiveJournal, Xanga, Neopets, MySpace, Facebook, AIM, Yahoo! Groups, MSN Spaces, YouTube, eBaumsworld, Slashdot. It would affect Wikipedia if there wasn’t a special clause for non-commercial sites. Because many news sites (NYTimes, CNN, the Post) allow people to login and create profiles and comment, it might affect them too.
Because it affects both libraries and schools, it will dramatically increase the digital divide. Poor youth only gain access to these sites through libraries and schools(1). With this ban, poor youth will have no access to the cultural artifacts of their day. Furthermore, because libraries won’t be able to maintain separate 18+ and minor computers, this legislation will affect everyone who uses libraries, including adults (2).
This legislation is horrifying and culturally damaging. Please, all of you invested in social technologies, do something to make this stop.
Update: (1) – in looking into what American youth were not using MySpace, i found that it was not nearly as popular in rural communities as in suburban and urban environments. In discussion with other researchers, i found that a lot of poor kids only have access to the Internet through school and public settings (libraries, Internet cafes in cities). While urban libraries have not been blocking MySpace, many rural libraries (and schools) have been blocking the site. Even though the teens have heard that it’s really cool, they haven’t been able to join because of the filters.
(2) Few libraries have enough computers to make 18+ rooms which means that it has to happen on a per-access level. The way that libraries currently ban sites is through filters that work across the entire library. It is possible that there could be logins for all library users, but this would eliminate anonymous/private web access and most librarians seem to oppose this approach. Implementations that would block minors but not adults are much more onerous on libraries, although theoretically not impossible, just unlikely.
Final note: This legislation will not protect minors, but it will continue to erode their (and our) freedoms. There are so many amazing things that teens do with social technologies. To lose all of this because of the culture of fear is terrifying to me. I found out about my alma mater talking to strangers online in the 90s. I learned about what it means to be queer, how to have confidence in myself and had so many engaging conversations. Sure, i found some sketchy people too, but i learned to ignore them just as i learned to ignore the guys who whistled and honked from their cars when i walked to the movie theater with my best friend. We need to give youth the knowledge to know the risks of their actions, the structures to be able to come to us when something goes wrong and the opportunity to grow up and connect to their peers. Eliminating cultural artifacts because we don’t understand them does not make our lives any safer, but it does obliterate so many positive interactions.