Attempt at MySpace intrusion criticized

After House passage, Senate has bill that would block social sites in libraries, schools

Joe Dodge works on a computer at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt. Dodge said he used the Internet mostly for checking message boards, e-mails and his MySpace page.

Michael Boster uses the computers at Lawrence Public Library almost daily during the summer.

The Free State High School junior doesn’t have Internet access at home, and he comes to the library before work to read the news, play games and keep tabs on some of his friends by browsing Facebook and MySpace, popular social-networking Web sites.

“It’s my only way to communicate with other people that I don’t see every day,” Boster said.

He was aghast when he heard about a bill now before Congress that would ban minors without parental consent from accessing these types of Web sites in public schools and libraries that receive federal funding.

The bill’s sponsor, U.S. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Ohio, and supporters say it will prevent online predators from having access to children. They have named it the Deleting Online Predators Act.

It overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House, 410-15, on July 26 and is now before a Senate committee.

Some librarians question the move.

“My personal feeling is that this legislation … is well intentioned but would further restrict access to information and interpersonal communication and collaboration in public libraries, which would be unfortunate,” said Bruce Flanders, Lawrence Public Library director.

The American Library Assn. has opposed the bill, calling it unnecessary and overly broad legislation. Libraries already are required to block content based on the Children’s Internet Protection Act, and the new law would be redundant, a statement from the ALA said.

“People who use library and school computers as their primary conduits to the Internet will be unfairly blocked from accessing some of the Web’s most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications,” according to the ALA statement.

The legislation would require libraries that receive federal funding to block certain Web sites and not allow minors to access the social-networking Web sites or chat rooms without parental permission. The act calls for the Federal Communications Commission to determine the Web sites and chat rooms that should be banned.

Social networking Web sites, like Facebook and MySpace, allow college and high school students to include personal information and photos of themselves. At Facebook, unless people restrict their own personal sites, anyone with an account that attends their school or university can access their site.

At MySpace, people 14 and older can start an account, write their own blog and profiles, and begin chatting online and instant messaging with others.

The Lawrence school district has blocked social-networking sites from school computers.

“We didn’t feel that that was an appropriate use of facilities. We want kids in our libraries to be using them for research purposes,” said Matt Brungardt, an assistant principal at Lawrence High School.

Brungardt said he believed the law would be good to have in place but did not see it having much effect in Lawrence schools.

The Lawrence Public Library blocks access to Internet chat rooms as a way to guard against computers viruses, Flanders said.

The ALA also has expressed concern that the new technology in libraries could prevent Internet users from accessing sites where personal information is needed to post a message, such as the technology information Web site Slashdot.org.

Flanders said those restrictions would be ludicrous if they happened, and he hoped senators would consult with librarians before proceeding.

As a high school student, Boster said students who post personal information should use social-networking sites wisely.

“Basically, if you are on that site, you are taking your own risk to meet other people,” he said.