Rediscovering Online Safety

11/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

President Bush signed the Broadband Data Improvement Act on Friday. Also known as S.1492, it is coming into law, appropriately enough, on the Columbus Day weekend. Within it lies another piece of legislation sponsored by Senator Stevens of bridge-to-nowhere fame: Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. This act is a sign that Congress is beginning to get it right when it comes to protecting kids online while not stepping over legitimate free expression rights of adult internet users.

The provisions of the bill directs the Federal Trade Commission to carry out a national awareness campaign and to provide education to identify, promote and encourage best practices for the safe use of the Internet by children. It also asks the NTIA, part of Commerce, to create an Online Safety and Technology Working Group to examine the status and effectiveness of industry-lead online safety education, industry efforts to report child porn and the developments of technologies to help parents shield their kids from inappropriate online content. Finally, it requires schools that are recipients of the Universal Fund, also known as the E-Rate, to educate students on appropriate online behavior and cyberbullying awareness training.

What the Act does not attempt to do is to limit, censor, restrict or inhibit adults accessing constitutionally protected speech, which might otherwise be harmful to minors. Congress has tried and failed this before with both the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act. The former was famously thrown out by the Supreme Court and the latter continues to languish in the lower courts after two unsuccessful visits to the Supremes.

What's interesting is that after two blue ribbon commissions: the COPA Commission of 2000 (disclosure - I sat on the Commission) and the Thornburgh Report of 2002, the message that education and raising awareness are key to keeping kids safe online is finally trickling through to our national legislators. And these two excellent reviews took place in a Web 1.0 world - a world of static websites with limited interactivity and participation. We urgently need a new look at our Web 2.0 world of social networking sites, YouTube, mash-ups and user generated content, where the kids themselves are producing content that only a few years ago we were trying to shield them from.

What is also desperately needed in the US is an administration that is willing to take a leadership role in this area. There has been a conspicuous absence of attention from the White House over the past eight years. Is this, perhaps, because the Clinton Administration held annual summits on online safety or that Al Gore invented the Internet? It's a mystery. The hope is that a McCain or, more likely, an Obama Administration would not only provide leadership, but also convene all the various agencies involved in this issue - the FTC, FCC, Justice, Education, Commerce, the Office of Science and Technology - and create some joined up government. Obama's pledge for a national Chief Technical Officer or CTO for the United States is a very good step in this direction.

So today on Columbus Day, let's remain hopeful, optimistic and forward looking. The sky may be falling, the stock market gone to hell, and the tone of the campaigns getting noticeably nastier. At least Washington has redeemed itself in the area of online safety. That's something worth celebrating.

Stephen Balkam, CEO
Family Online Safety Institute
FOSI Annual Conference, "Safe at Any Speed: Rules, Tools and Public Policies to Keep Kids Safe Online", December 11, 2008 at the Newseum, Washington, DC