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Two Sensible, Education-Based Legislative Approaches to Online Child Safety

Progress Snapshot
Release 3.10 September 2007

by Adam Thierer*

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In the first week of August, two bills were introduced in the House and Senate seeking to better coordinate and expand federal online safety efforts. Specifically, the bills propose the creation of a nationwide public awareness and educational campaign about online safety, something that is very much needed to supplement ongoing private efforts.

The first of those legislative measures, S. 1965, the "Protecting Children in the 21 st Century Act," was introduced on August 2nd by Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Vice Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). That measure is due to be marked up in the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday, September 27th. The House measure, H.R. 3461, the "Safeguarding America's Families by Enhancing and Reorganizing New and Efficient Technologies Act of 2006," or "SAFER NET" Act, was introduced on August 4th by Rep. Melissa Bean (D-IL). (Rep. Bean's new bill is a reworked version of a measure that Rep. Bean introduced earlier this year).[1]

These two measures are important because e ducation must serve as the cornerstone of any serious effort to deal with the issue of protecting children from either objectionable content or online cyber-dangers. Many private online safety efforts and websites are already in place that provide parents with useful tools, tips, and strategies in this regard. Those efforts are inventoried in a constantly-updated Progress & Freedom Foundation publication, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods.[2]

While private and non-profit efforts have been flourishing, unfortunately, the same cannot be said of governmental efforts. So far, the dialogue about Internet safety on Capitol Hill has been dominated by regulatory deliberations and proposals. Education has mostly been an afterthought. This is why S. 1965 and H.R. 3461 are important. Congress can reinforce the excellent private and non-profit educational efforts already underway through steps such as those proposed in these bills.

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."

The House measure would appropriate $10 million for this effort; the Senate measure allocates $5 million. (The Senate measure also proposes a handful of other efforts aimed at enhancing child pornography enforcement).

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."[3] Six federal agencies collaborated to create the website.[4] Although the initiative doesn’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.[5] But, again, these efforts are largely uncoordinated and receive very little promotion from federal agencies or congressional lawmakers.[6]

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.

There are other education and awareness-building models that can be emulated. In the past, government officials and organizations have undertaken (or lent support to) public awareness campaigns to address other concerns and had a great deal of success. Some examples include:

  • Forest fire prevention: Since the mid-1940s, the federal government has used the Smokey the Bear mascot to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires and wildfires.[7]
  • Anti-littering and Land stewardship: The U.S. Forest Service began a widespread "Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute" anti-littering campaign in the early 1970s that featured the mascot Woodsy Owl. In recent years, the campaign has expanded its land stewardship mission and adopted a new slogan: "Lend a Hand-Care for the Land."[8]
  • Crime prevention: Beginning in the early 1980s, the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) developed its popular "McGruff the Crime Dog" campaign to assist law enforcement agencies seeking to deter crime or build awareness about criminal activities.[9] The McGruff campaign, which included the "Take a Bite Out of Crime" motto, offers publications and teaching materials on a variety of topics; programs that can be implemented in communities and schools, local, regional, and national training programs; public service announcements broadcast nationwide starring McGruff the Crime Dog; and support for a national coalition of crime prevention practitioners.[10] The NCPC reports that "now 25 years after McGruff's first TV appearance, more than 75 percent of children recognize McGruff and over 4,000 law enforcement agencies own a McGruff suit."[11]
  • Physical fitness: The President's Council on Physical Fitness promotes physical fitness and healthy living for citizens of all ages, but especially among children and teens. The program, which celebrated its 50 th anniversary in 2006, circulates a wide variety of promotional information including classroom materials. Two prominent websites promote the Council’s efforts: www.presidentschallenge.org and www.fitness.gov. To further boost the visibility of the program and its fitness agenda, the Council has recruited well-known athletes to serve as chair or spokespersons: actor and former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner, baseball player Stan Musial, college basketball coach Al McGuire, professional football coach George Allen, and professional football player Lynn Swann.
  • Seat-belt and air-bag safety: Perhaps the most successful campaign has been the efforts of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,[12] numerous other state and local agencies, and many nonprofit organizations[13] to educate the public about the benefits of wearing seat belts while in automobiles. Of course, these efforts were also accompanied by enforcement efforts, such as the "Click It or Ticket" warnings used in many states. Regardless, the educational component of these campaigns clearly helped communicate the importance of seat belts to the general public.[14] The effort was later expanded to promote air bags in automobiles.

Government officials should seek to emulate these examples if they want to construct a serious public awareness campaign about online child safety efforts. The steps proposed in S. 1965 and H.R. 3461 can help make that a reality.

*Adam Thierer is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at The Progress & Freedom Foundation. He is the author of Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods (Washington, DC: The Progress & Freedom Foundation), 2007. The views expressed in this report are his own, and are not necessarily the views of the PFF board, fellows or staff.

  1. See Adam Thierer, "Rep. Bean's 'SAFER Net Act': An Education-Based Approach to Online Child Safety," Progress & Freedom Foundation Progress on Point 14.3, February 22, 2007, www.pff.org/issues-pubs/pops/pop14.3beanbillinternetsafety.pdf
  2. Adam Thierer, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods (Washington, DC: The Progress & Freedom Foundation), p. 8, www.pff.org/parentalcontrols
  3. http://onguardonline.gov/index.html
  4. They are the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Commerce, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Office of Justice Programs, and the Department of Homeland Security.
  5. www.fbi.gov/publications/pguide/pguidee.htm
  6. U.S. officials should look at the excellent online safety metasites that other nations have developed. The Australian government has established www.NetAlert.net, which serves as a model that other governments could seek to emulate. Europe's www.BeSafeOnline.org is another excellent online safety meta-site.
  7. See www.smokeybear.com and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokey_the_Bear
  8. www.fs.fed.us/spf/woodsy
  9. http://mcgruff.org
  10. www.ncpc.org/about
  11. www.ncpc.org/about
  12. www.nhtsa.dot.gov/portal/site/nhtsa/
  13. The National Safety Council, in particular, has played a major role in these educational efforts. See www.nsc.org/airbag.htm
  14. Seat Belt Use in 2003 – Demographic Characteristics, U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DOT HS 809 729, May 2004, www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/airbags/809729.pdf


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