Would Your Favorite Website be Banned by DOPA?

by on March 10, 2007

TLF readers, I need your help. As most of you know, many federal and state lawmakers are suggesting that “social networking websites” need to be regulated in the name of keeping minors safe online. So far, regulatory proposals have come in two varieties: (1) an outright ban on such sites in publicly funded schools and libraries, or (2) mandatory age verification of users before they are allowed on the sites.

Setting aside the many potential pitfalls associated with either form of regulation, proponents of these mandates seem to be ignoring a very challenging threshold question: What exactly constitutes a “social networking website”? In my past and upcoming papers on this issue, I argue that lawmakers are opening up a huge Pandora’s Box of problems here in terms of unintended regulatory consequences. That’s because “social networking” defies easy definition since, in many ways, the Internet and most of the websites that make up the World Wide Web have been fundamentally tied up with the notion of social networking from their inception.

So, here’s how I need your help. Below the fold you will find the amorphous legislative definitions of “social networking websites” that lawmakers have proposed so far. Using those definitions as a guide, I am hoping that you can list for me a couple of your favorite websites that might be subject to federal or state regulation should lawmakers pass bans on social networking sites or demand age verification of them. This will help me construct a diverse list of websites that will be negatively impacted by regulation which we can then present to policy makers and the press in coming months as these debates unfold.

OK, so here are the definitions. Under the first incarnation of the federal “Deleting Online Predators Act” (DOPA), which would ban such sites in publicly funded schools and libraries, “social networking websites” were defined as any site that:

“(a) allows users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users; and (b) offers a mechanism for communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, email, or instant messenger.”

The latest version of DOPA is contained in S. 49, “Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act,” which was reintroduced just a few weeks into the current session of Congress by Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Section 2 of the bill defines social networking as follows:

“In determining the definition of a social networking website, the Commission shall take into consideration the extent to which a website (i) is offered by a commercial entity; (ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information; (iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users; (iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and (v) enables communication among users.”

Finally, a new Connecticut bill, which demands age verification and parental notification before allowing minors on such sites, defines social networking websites as:

“an Internet web site containing profile web pages of members of the web site that include the name or nickname of such members, photographs placed on the profile web page by such members, other personal information about such members and links to other profile web pages on social networking web sites of friends or associates of such members that can be accessed by other members or visitors to the web site. A social networking web site provides members of or visitors to such web site the ability to leave the messages or comments on the profile web page that are visible to all or some visitors to the profile web page and may include a form of electronic mail for members of such web site.”

A synthesis of these three definitions basically boils down to this: A social networking site is any website that allows users to…

(1) create their own profile;
(2) post information about themselves within that profile; and,
(3) interact with other members who have profiles on that webpage.

No doubt, that definition would capture almost all of the popular social networking websites out there today, including MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, Bebo, Hi5, Friendster, Tagged, Imbee, LiveJournal, Yahoo 360, Windows Live Spaces, and so on. (For a more comprehensive listing of other social networking sites that might be affected by these regulatory efforts, see the “SaveYourSpace.org” web page.)

Unfortunately, however, that definition would cover a great deal more online activity than proponents realize. Indeed, DOPA and age verification mandates are likely to cast a very wide net and ensnare many websites and services that millions of web surfers — children and adults alike — use every day.

For example, last week I noted how USA Today had re-launched its website and refashioned it as social networking website complete with profiles, avatars, and plenty of user interaction. So, is USAToday.com a social networking website? Who knows. And what about Flickr and Wikipedia?

The more I started thinking about the potential reach of DOPA and age verification mandates, the more worried I got about how this all might impact some of my favorite websites, including:

* CBS Sportsline: A great site for fantasy sports junkies that lets you create profiles and interact with millions of strangers of all ages in different fantasy sports leagues.

* GameSpot and XBOX Forums: Two amazing sites for video game fans that allow you to create profiles, post reviews, and interact with other gamers. The XBOX site even lets you migrate your XBOX 360 “gamer tag” over to the site so that others can see your gamer ranking and individual gaming achievements.

* RoadFly.com and CarDomain.com: For sports car junkies like me, nothing beats these two sites. They allow users to create a personal page about themselves and their car and then share pictures and information with others on various forums.

* AVS Forum: One-stop shopping for home theater / audio-visual matters. This amazing site allows millions of A/V fanatics to interact in dozens of different forums. Users post tons of information about themselves, their home theater setup, and their favorite gear or content. (See member profiles here).

OK, so those are my favorite websites and, as far as I can tell, every one of them would qualify as “social networking websites” under DOPA and the age verification bills. So now it’s your turn. Please tell me about some of your favorite websites (or any other sites) that you think would be regulated under the amorphous definition of social networking that lawmakers are proposing. And thanks in advance for your contributions.

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