"

On the 27th July 2006, the US House of Representatives voted on the "Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) of 2006," an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 proposed by Congressperson Fitzpatrick.

The Bill is designed to protect young people, below the age of 18, from child sexual abuse, by blocking online community sites. This requires "recipients of universal service support for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms." This effectively withdraws funding from US institutions that fail to censor specific sites. DOPA was passed by a majority of 410 to 19 and now goes forward to the Senate.

Extensive Networks

In addition to commercial ownership, the bill defines social network sites as those which "elicit personal information, include a personal profile, support blogging or journals, and enable communication amongst users." This includes many sites which are effective in supporting learning and teaching, and are currently being used across all education sectors to support engaging, creative and effective learning"“ including Blogger, Flickr, and Yahoo! Groups.

On 3rd August 2006, a leading e-learning body expressed alarm at the new DOPA amendment and warned against the UK adopting similar censorship measures. DOPA is intended to protect minors from online predation but AoC NILTA, the independent voice of the post-16 sector in ICT and e-learning, says that it is a "step backwards in social and education terms" and will not work.

Alarmed

Sally-Anne Saull, the managing director of AOC NILTA, said: "We are alarmed at the extent to which DOPA fails to recognise the value of online interaction and the current state and benefits of e-learning. The legislation also fails to recognise the reality of current and future social and economic activity. The enactment of DOPA will disadvantage learners, educational professionals and the communities supported by educational and library connectivity. We are also worried that legislators in the United Kingdom may view DOPA as a useful precedent. We will continue to promote a constructive debate within Government and associated bodies around the use of new social technologies within education."

AoC NILTA recognises and supports the formal and informal educational value of social networking sites. There are many effective examples of social networking sites being used to support creative, effective and engaging learning and teaching. The "Edublog Awards" is an annual web based event that recognises and showcases the many ways in which "weblogs" are being used within education, and promotes the positive and creative uses of new web technologies in the classroom.

Moreover, in addition to media such as weblogs, tagging and podcasting, educators in all disciplines are increasingly using applications such as "Flickr" (most obviously for art and photography courses) and "MySpace" (again, most obviously but not restricted to music and music technology courses). In recognition of the excellent work currently being demonstrated in the post 16 sector, in this area, AoC NILTA is introducing a new award to their long standing award programme. The point of such innovation in the use of emerging technologies is to enhance and improve the student experience.

Access

The AoC NILTA statement continued: "AoC NILTA recognises that this U.S. legislation will particularly impact on those in the population who are in most need of access "“ learners and connectivity users who do not have private internet access. We do not believe that this legislation will effectively protect young people. On the contrary, we are troubled at the disadvantage this legislation presents to all learners and at the step backwards in social and educational terms this approach to the internet represents."

DOPA defines social networking sites, broadly as websites which enable users to interact with one another and share information about themselves. This broad definition could even include sites such as eBay which require registration, encourage users to comment on their experience of transactions, and provide user forums. Other examples of social networking sites that fall under DOPA's broad definition include "Friends Reunited", where communities are structured around schools, colleges, universities and workplaces; "Flickr", a photo storing and sharing site; and "LastFM", where the community is organised around shared taste in music.

In concluding their statement on the subject, the AoC NILTA stated: "AoC NILTA is committed to highlighting and promoting the role of e-safety within the 16+ sector, as an important component of both learner support and staff development. Blocking and filtering sites does not encourage a culture where young people are supported to take responsibility for their own actions and to equip themselves for dealing with unwanted encounters with materials or people. We see the role of this sector as clear in this regard "“ open discussion, education, and clear, accessible routes for reporting will always be the most effective way to combat child sexual abuse."

Sudakshina Mukherjee

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