I just released a short new paper about "Two Sensible, Education-Based Legislative Approaches to Online Child Safety." The paper focuses on S. 1965, the "Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act," and H.R. 3461, the "Safeguarding America's Families by Enhancing and Reorganizing New and Efficient Technologies Act of 2006," or "SAFER NET" Act. These bills wisely adopt an education focus to online safety concerns instead of the same old regulatory approach that members of Congress usually recommend.
Both bills would require that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):
"carry out a nationwide program to increase public awareness and provide education" to promote safer Internet use. "The program shall utilize existing resources and efforts of the Federal Government, State and local governments, nonprofit organizations, private technology and financial companies, Internet service providers, World Wide Web-based resources, and other appropriate entities, that includes-
(1) identifying, promoting, and encouraging best practices for Internet safety;
(2) establishing and carrying out a national outreach and education campaign regarding Internet safety utilizing various media and Internet-based resources;
(3) facilitating access to, and the exchange of, information regarding Internet safety to promote up to-date knowledge regarding current issues; and,
(4) facilitating access to Internet safety education and public awareness efforts the Commission considers appropriate by States, units of local government, schools, police departments, nonprofit organizations, and other appropriate entities."
These efforts are essential for two reasons. First, these measures help shift the focus of federal efforts in this area toward education and away from regulation. No matter how much regulation lawmakers propose or enact, access to objectionable materials and concerns about online safety will remain problems that must be confronted. That is why there is simply no substitute for education and sensible safety lessons. Our children need to be taught how to behave responsibly online, how to spot legitimate dangers, how to be good cyber-citizens, and how to report problems to parents, educators, social workers or others. Education and awareness-building efforts such as those proposed in S. 1965 and H.R. 3461 can supplement private efforts already underway. Moreover, these measures can help generate a broader societal conversation about cyber-safety.
The second reason that these two measures are important is because better coordination of federal online safety efforts is desperately needed. Currently, governmental efforts to promote online safety have been quite limited and largely uncoordinated among various federal agencies and programs. One notable exception at the federal level has been the OnGuardOnline.gov website, which "provides practical tips from the federal government and the technology industry to help you be on guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information." Six federal agencies collaborated to create the website. Although the initiative doesnâ€™t focus exclusively on parental controls or online child protection, it does offer some helpful tips on that front. The effort includes a "Stop-Think-Click" promotion that recommends "Seven Practices for Safer Computing." And the Federal Bureau of Investigation offers similar tips on its "Parent's Guide to Internet Safety" website. But, again, these efforts are largely uncoordinated and receive very little promotion from federal agencies or congressional lawmakers.
If policymakers want to encourage more widespread awareness and adoption of parental control tools and online child safety methods, they will need to expand their current efforts considerably. And they must be tightly coordinated to ensure the message gets through. Dozens of different programs and messages will not be nearly as effective as a single, coordinated education effort.