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Parents Smarter Than Congress?

Parents, it appears, are talking to their children about Internet safety. Parents, it seems, are taking responsibility for what their children do and see online.

The results, according to two new studies, are encouraging and speak volumes about the disconnect between Washington and the rest of America.

According to a new national poll commissioned by Cable in the Classroom and conducted by Harris Interactive, 94 percent of parents are taking steps to ensure their children's safe use of the Internet.

Parents being parents, of course, aren't entirely sure they are knowledgeable enough to deal with the horrific story lines emanating from Washington about online sexual predators.

The Harris poll shows only 34 percent of parents consider themselves "very knowledgeable" about to how use the Internet in a safe and responsible way.

Nevertheless, most of them are doing exactly the right thing.

More than 80 percent of parents monitor their children's use of the Internet, limiting home use to the living room, den or other open space.

More than 70 percent of parents set time limits for Internet use, and more than half are using software and filters to limit or block where the kids go online.

"We know that most parents have positive views of the value of the Internet for children," Douglas Levin, senior director of education policy for Cable in the Classroom, said in a statement released with the Harris poll.

"They are taking steps to make certain these experiences are safe and enriching."

When the children are not at home, more than 70 percent of parents -- rightly so --expect a substantial chunk of responsibility for their children's Internet safety falls to schools.

To one extend or another, schools are already doing this. Under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), schools and libraries are required to block content that is harmful to minors.

The poll also shows at least half of the parents surveyed don't believe Washington needs to get involved.

"Only about half of parents (49 percent) think that government and law enforcement agencies should have a lot of responsibility in ensuring that children have safe experiences on the Internet," the survey summary states.

This all might come as a surprise to the U.S. House of Representatives, which wants to take online educational and learning tools such as social networks out of the nation's classrooms and libraries in the name of public safety.

Last month, the House overwhelmingly approved the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), legislation its sponsors say is needed to protect children from pedophiles and other sexual predators who use the Internet to prey on the innocent.

In the misguided notion that unconstitutional censorship of free speech will protect children from the bad guys, DOPA would require any school or library receiving federal funding to block minors from accessing social-networking sites.

In all likelihood, the American Library Association estimates, the ban would also extend to chat rooms, wikis, instant messaging, blogs and e-mail -- valuable tools used by parents, preachers, teachers, predators and perps alike.

DOPA, lawmakers confidently assure us, is the right law at the right time to curb the growing number of online sexual predators.

The right time, of course, is an election year.

And now for the second report out this week: The number of youths sexually solicited online is actually declining.

Moreover, most solicitation incidents -- almost 80 percent -- happen on home computers. And fewer than 10 percent happen on a school or library computer.

Funded by the federal government and researched and written by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, the Online Victimization of Children report states that in 2001, 19 percent of children reported unwanted sexual solicitations over the Internet.

Five years later, the number fell to 13 percent.

"Despite the decline in the proportion of youth who received solicitations, however, the number of youth receiving the most dangerous sexual overtures, aggressive solicitations that move, or threaten to move, beyond the Internet into real life, has not declined," the report states.

Nor has it increased over five years, suggesting the problem is being badly blown out of proportion by vote-hungry lawmakers.

This would certainly not be the first time Congress ignored obvious facts to whip up lurid headlines for their own self interests.

Several years ago, at the height of the peer-to-peer (P2P) wars between Hollywood and music file swappers, both the House and the Senate held well-publicized hearings emphasizing the connection between P2P and pornography.

"I am currently considering legislative solutions to the many risks inherent in the use of peer-to-peer networks," Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah intoned.

"Recent studies have shown that millions and millions of pornographic files are available for downloading on these networks at any given time."

In the end, however, there was no proof.

The U.S. General Accountability Office issued a report shortly after Hatch's remarks that showed pornography was no more widely available on P2P networks than on the Internet in general.

Hatch's legislative proposals quietly went away, discredited by the facts.

Let's hope Hatch and other senators remember that lesson when DOPA comes up for discussion upon the Senate's return in September.

The House certainly didn't.