The Dopes of DOPA
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Reporter's Notebook: It's all about the kids, you know.
In an ugly fit of election year pandering to one of parents' worse fears, the House recently passed the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA). Sounds good, doesn't it?
Actually, it's more like a Rope-a-Dope DOPA.
The dopes, in this case, are lawmakers anxious to show the voters back home they are doing something about the sexual predators crawling around the Internet.
Something in this case is denying minors in the nation's schools and libraries a wide array of emerging Web-based learning applications and technologies.
If DOPA ever becomes law, schools and libraries receiving federal funds would be required to filter out online resources that "enable communications among users."
The American Library Association's (ALA) analysis of DOPA concludes the dragnet filters would cover non-educational social networks, chat rooms, wikis, instant messaging, blogs and possibly even e-mail.
"This...legislation will hinder students' ability to engage in distance learning and block library computer users from accessing a wide array of essential Internet applications," states ALA President Leslie Burger.
The ALA also notes, "As libraries are already required to block content that is 'harmful to minors' under the Children's Internet Protection Act, DOPA is redundant and unnecessary legislation."
And then there is the simple matter of the constitutionality of the House's latest lame brainstorm.
As the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) points out, "DOPA would block minors' access to a category of speech -- social conversation -- that no court has ever allowed the government to censor or regulate."
Undeterred, House members approved DOPA, 410-15.
What, you might fairly ask, what does any of this have to do with sexual predators?
Pedophiles, you see, also use the Internet, a fact that has so unglued most House members they are perfectly willing to hock a loogie on the United States Constitution.
For the kids, you know.
"Americans should have the right to send their kids to safe schools and libraries," Illinois Republican Mark Kirk said.
Michigan Republican Fred Upton, who as chairman of the House subcommittee on the Internet should know better, at least admitted the bill was, uh, a bit flawed.
"This is not the end-all bill," he said on the House floor. "But, we know sexual predators should not have the avenue of our schools and libraries to pursue their evil deeds."
As witnessed by the overwhelming vote, Democrats were no better on this lick log issue of free speech.
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) said the bill, "Makes good press releases, but it won't save one single child from one single incident. This will not solve the problem."
And then he voted for the bill.
Venerable Michigan icon John Dingell probably best summarized the Democrats' position, "Like a lot of my colleagues, I'm going to hold my nose and vote for a bill that does nothing."
Actually, it would do much and none of it good.
Aside from the rank unconstitutionality of the legislation and the dubious educational policy of stripping away learning tools from minors, DOPA would also work to increase the digital divide.
There are still a multitude of families whose children only have access to the Internet through schools and libraries.
While the children of the more affluent would find DOPA annoying, they still have alternatives through their own laptops, cell phones and Blackberries to interact with their peers online.
Children of the poor would simply be out of luck.
Least you think the wise sages of the Senate will see through this election year nonsense and reject it out hand, DOPA came close to a vote before the senators adjourned for their August recess.
DOPA, it turns out, tracks very well with the Senate's own grand plans to rollback Internet free speech rights.
Buried within the massive Senate telecom reform bill likely to be voted on in September, is a provision to require websites to display "sexually explicit" labels for a wide range of content, including non-pornographic, non-naked people sites.
Packaged as an anti-child pornography measure (it's all about the kids, you know), the provision, like DOPA, targets lawful speech.
All of which pleases the Department of Justice (DoJ), which has its own ongoing campaign against Internet free speech.
Remember the Child Online Protection Act (COPA)?
Bounced back twice already to the lower courts by the Supreme Court, COPA would make it illegal to post free online material considered to be "harmful to minors."
Penalties range from a $50,000-a-day fine and/or up to six months of prison time.
Criminalized Internet speech under COPA would include sexual advice and education, chat rooms and discussion boards involving sexual topics, and Web sites for bookstores, art galleries and the news media.
In rejecting COPA, the Supreme Court said there are less restrictive methods that are "likely more effective" in protecting children. For example, filters.
The Bush administration remains unconvinced filters are effective and is pushing ahead for a new COPA trial, probably sometime this fall.
In preparation, the DoJ raised concerns among privacy advocates last year by issuing subpoenas to the top four search engines aiming to find out just what people are searching for and what they're finding.
Once issues of non-personal identifiers were worked out, the search engines turned over millions of search terms.
The DoJ is now running those terms through filters to determine their effectiveness.
The DoJ's insistence on revising COPA is a sure indicator it believes jail time is a better measure than filters.
Let's just call this effort to chill Internet free speech rights the Rope-a-Dope COPA DOPA.