Impact of Anti-Social Networking Website Legislation on Higher Education

We’ve seen and are continuing to see attempts by state and federal legislators to restrict the use of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace on computers with Internet access funded by the (state or federal) government. Although DOPA was not passed into law last year, Sen. Stevens introduced a similar law earlier this year. State legislators in Connecticut and Illinois have introduced similar legislation.

I am neither a lawyer nor an experienced policy junkie so my understanding of the detailed specifics of these proposed laws is likely incomplete and possibly outright wrong in some areas. As best as I can tell from reading the bills and the media reports surrounding them, the federal bill, the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, requires that minors not be allowed to use computers with Internet access funded by the federal government (e-rate) to access “social networking websites” and “chat rooms” without parental permission. Connecticut’s law levies a $5,000 fine on social networking websites that fail to verify the age of participants and require parental permission for minors to participate. Illinois’ proposed law is the most stringent; it requires that “each public library must prohibit access to social networking websites on all computers made available to the public in the library [and] each public school must prohibit access to social networking websites on all computers made available to students in the school.”

As a university administrator, I wonder if we have paid enough attention to these and similar proposed laws to gauge their impact on our pre-matriculation programs. In other words, would these proposed laws have an impact on online orientation or similar programs that are aimed at applicants, interested high school students, and other minors? The answer seems to be a clear “yes” for those institutions whose programs have taken on characteristics of social networking. However, the precise definition of “social networking website” has yet to be crafted; for the federal law, it will take into account if the service:

  • is offered by a commercial entity
  • permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information
  • permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users
  • elicits highly-personalized information from users
  • enables communication among users

For some of the proposed bills, requiring that the users supply proof of their age and secure parental permission for minors to participate would satisfy the legislative requirements. That seems like a low bar for colleges and universities, particularly if the users are those who have already applied to the institution and thus already supplied proof of age; it’s only one more bullet point on the application form signed by the applicant and, if necessary, mom or dad. Of course, this completely dodges the question of how the laws would actually be enforced in libraries and schools, how easy it will be to overcome the necessary technological filters and restrictions, what evidence would be necessary for librarians or teachers to allow minors to access social networking sites, etc.

The primary concern of many who perform research into youths’ use of social networking sites is the disparate impact this legislation would have on youths whose primary Internet access occurs at school or the library. That concern should hold true for college and university administrators as this proposed legislation would have a negative and disproportionate impact on prospective students with a low SES. It seems to me that this legislation may strengthen continued concerns about the widening SES gap in America between those attend college and those who do not. Further, this proposed legislation may harm efforts to attract students with low SES and help them fit into the college environment in that crucial first year.

Colleges and universities must monitor this area of legislation. Not only does it impact current and developing programs such as online orientation programs and cutting edge recruiting efforts, it may intertwine with the continued debates about widening SES gaps and efforts to shrink those gaps.