Guest Column

Delete DOPA

Terrorists. Pedophiles. Liquids. The politics of fear define this pivotal moment in history. Appeals to fear are effective for one simple reason: Our world is terrifying. Each day brings news of another senseless act of violence. Planes fly into skyscrapers. Someone will eventually deploy a nuclear or biological weapon in a major world city.

In small amounts, fear is healthy. If not for the “fight or flight response,” hungry predators would have gobbled up our ancestors before they could reproduce. But fear also makes good people do bad things.

Fear makes democratic countries invade rogue nations without evidence of a genuine international threat. Fear causes citizens to support torture while surrendering free speech and privacy rights. And, during this election year, fear motivates voters and politicians to smother emerging technologies in the crib.

A case in point is the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA). Approved by the House of Representatives in July, DOPA would force federally funded public schools and libraries to block access to chat rooms, blogs, and social-networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube.

People who spend little time online might applaud this initiative as a way of getting lazy kids off their butts and back into the real world. And, when we consider the horrifying creepiness of pedophilia, DOPA is even more appealing. After all, if predators seek out playgrounds and shopping malls, why wouldn’t they leverage the anonymity and reach of the global internet?

We need to protect our children from those who would do them harm, and DOPA is here to save the day. What adult in his or her right mind could object to such a proposition?

If we are lucky, all of them.

There are at least three things wrong with the DOPA vision: (1) politicians and lobbyists seriously exaggerate the risk posed by online predators, (2) DOPA does little to address the few risks that do exist, and (3) DOPA would squash innovative attempts to use emerging technologies in the classroom.

Let’s start with the facts.

DOPA proponents claim that online predators have sexually solicited one in five children between 10 and 17. This shocking statistic is highly misleading. It relies on a single study in which three-fourths of respondents were solicited by other children. Adults over the age of 25 constituted less than 2 percent of the total sample and none of the contacts led to sexual assault. Though worthy of concern, it is a far cry from the image of trench-coat-clad pedophiles swarming our children every time they sit down in front of the computer.

This distorted claim is repeatedly debunked, but it still circulates throughout the internet and traditional media outlets like those bogus email messages claiming that Bill Gates is giving away his fortune. During the past 72 hours alone, Bossier Press-Tribune Online, Focus on the Family’s Citizen Link, the Simi Valley Acorn, the India Post, and the Daily Advertiser uncritically cited this statistic as fact in five different news stories.

The rate of sex crimes involving children has been steadily decreasing for almost a decade. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently published a report demonstrating that the rate of online solicitation plummeted during the past five years.

Furthermore, all available data confirms that family members and trusted adults are much more likely than strangers to assault children. As researcher Danah Boyd points out, children are at much greater risk when attending a church picnic than when they log onto MySpace.

Many readers will find these claims counterintuitive. But, for those who genuinely care about protecting children — which is to say almost all of us — we need to start with the facts. Online predators exist, but they are not nearly as dangerous as most citizens believe. Uninformed voters and politicians agitating for DOPA pose a far more serious threat to our children. By barring social-networking sites from classrooms and libraries, DOPA would actually increase the risks that children face when they go online after school. The best way to protect our children is to teach responsible use of social-networking tools even before they are old enough to register for online services.

We also need to educate users of all ages about the perils of sharing too much personal information. From personal websites to online versions of community newsletters, adults often publish pictures of their children along with names, ages, and locations.

DOPA does not teach safe and responsible use of the internet. Instead, it hobbles teachers and librarians who are adapting the curriculum to the new realities of our digital-media landscape. It also threatens America’s economic competitiveness. Web logs, social-networking sites, and message boards are the workflow lifeblood of the global economy. If our children hope to have a prayer of competing with knowledge workers in Shanghai, Seoul, and Dubai, we need to introduce them to these tools in a learning context.

DOPA will not delete online predators, but it will delete our children’s access to new technology and innovative pedagogy. Delete DOPA.