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CONTACT: Amy Smorodin
September 30, 2009
(202) 289-8928
Education is Best Way for Congress to Address Cyberbullying
PFF Fellows Submit Written Comments for Online Child Safety Hearing

WASHINGTON D.C. - If Congress wants to address cyberbullying, it should focus on education-based approaches instead of criminalization, argue Berin Szoka and Adam Thierer in written comments submitted to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism & Homeland Security for today's hearing on cyberbullying and online child safety.  The Committee should also reject proposals to impose tort liability on online intermediaries in order to address child safety concerns.

In the comments, PFF Senior Fellows Szoka and Thierer summarize and submit an updated version of their June 2009 paper, "Cyberbullying Legislation: Why Education is Preferable to Regulation."  The comments compare two bills that are the subject of today's hearing, which take radically different approaches to cyberbullying.  Szoka and Thierer note:

  • True cyber-bullying is child-on-child behavior, and criminalizing it will not likely solve the age-old problem of kids mistreating each other, a problem that has traditionally been dealt with at the local level.
  • Criminalization raises serious speech and due process issues related to legal definitions of harassing or intimidating speech. At a minimum, criminal sanctions should be limited to egregious cyber-harassment of children by adults, not the kid-on-kid problem of cyber-bullying, and should require a showing of real harm and proof that the adult knew they were harassing a child.
  • It's not clear the federal government should be getting involved here at all, especially since the federal criminal justice system isn't equipped to handle juvenile offenders.
  • But by supporting education and awareness-building, Congress could help reduce behavior that's truly harmful to kids while avoiding constitutional pitfalls and subsequent court challenges.
  • Lawmakers should reject calls to impose tort liability on website operators and other Internet intermediaries. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been the cornerstone of a free, competitive and dynamic Internet since 1996, and revising its broad immunity for online middlemen would not improve online child safety. Holding online intermediaries liable for the speech or conduct of users of their sites or services would strongly discourage voluntary efforts to police online communities. Indeed, online intermediaries would be forced to take sweeping steps that could massively chill online speech and threaten the viability of smaller site operators. 

Szoka and Thierer's comments are available on the PFF website.  PFF also produces a book, Parental Controls and Online Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, which offers parents and policymakers a comprehensive inventory of the many excellent tools and strategies that can be used to protect kids online.  Co-author Thierer also currently serves on a new government online safety task force, the Online Safety and Technology Working Group, and previously served on two other online child safety task forces.

The Progress & Freedom Foundation is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy. It is a 501(c)(3) research & educational organization.



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