Most U.S. internet users are familiar with the proposed Congress bill Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). With overly broad rules and far-reaching consequences, SOPA would change the Internet as we know it by giving the U.S. censorship powers equivalent to those of political regimes in Iran or China, and by severely limiting the ability for search engines and content-sharing sites to freely index and deliver user-generating content.
A similarly-named and similarly overreaching, but much lesser-known bill called the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) was on the table half a decade ago, in late 2006. DOPA would have required certain public schools in the U.S. with federal funding for Internet access to block access to social networking sites where so-called adult “sexual predators” could contact and harass teenagers. While DOPA did not affect the operations of the Internet as a whole, it would have severely limited high school students’ access to the emergent web genres of blogs and social networks, perhaps the most valuable source of breaking news, research, and expertise in an age before Twitter.
I wrote about DOPA in a freshman-year research paper in a Writing & Rhetoric class at Stanford in Autumn 2006, arguing that it would have negative consequences for the media literacy and technical competency of high school students, especially underserved populations, and that the protections that it required could be circumvented. While the Wikipedia article is more thorough and concise; I enjoyed looking back at my research paper now and seeing references to SurfControl, where I had interned in 2006, as well as MySpace, by far the best-known social network at the time, where much of the reported online predation had taken place.
Thankfully, the forces of good (pro-Internet, pro-openness, pro-education) prevailed and DOPA never became law. In light of the SOPA and PIPA which would have much graver consequences, isn’t it fascinating how Internet history and policy repeats itself?