Legislating Net Protections for Children

Parents teach their kids not to talk to strangers, but online youth communities like MySpace are connecting kids with strangers around the world. Farai Chideya speaks with Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), about what Congress is doing to keep children safe from Internet predators.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, Host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. I'm sitting in for Ed Gordon.

Most parents teach their kids not to talk to strangers. But at Internet youth communities like MySpace, millions of minors log on and meet new people every day. Adult sex predators have learned how to take advantage of the system to find victims. So this week, a Congressional subcommittee met to consider new safeguards. The goal: to protect kids online and give parents a little more peace of mind. Joining us now is a member of that subcommittee. She's Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette, of Colorado. Welcome, Congresswoman.

Representative DIANA DEGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): It's great being with you.

CHIDEYA: Well, what, to you, is the most important thing to come out of these hearings?

Rep. DEGETTE: There's really two things. We need a concerted societal effort to stop solicitations of minors over the Internet. And the second thing is really we need beefed-up law enforcement nationally to stop these solicitations and to stop the child pornography that's going on. It's really burgeoning on the Internet.

CHIDEYA: You heard testimony from most of the heavy hitters in the industry -Yahoo, Google, AOL - have they made any concrete resolutions to improve their security?

Rep. DEGETTE: Well, all of the major companies are very concerned about the rise of child pornography and solicitations on the Internet. A lot of the companies have filters, but the bottom line is we need a much bigger effort by those companies and also by media outlets and parents to educate children about just how dangerous solicitations over the Internet can be.

CHIDEYA: From what we understand, that they are going to, as they say, disrupt distribution of known images of child exploitation. So that deals with the idea of child pornography, which for a long time, was really the center of this whole question of the Internet and child safety. Is enough attention being paid to the whole idea of these interactive spaces where...

Rep. DEGETTE: Well, both of the issues need attention. For example, the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has found that there has been a massive increase in reports of child pornography and it's very, very graphic, violent pornography on the Internet. In 2003, 3,700 cases roughly; 2005, two years later, 199,000. So that's a serious problem and we need to beef up law enforcement for that problem. In terms of the spaces like MySpace and some of the chat rooms, that's an issue that has really come to the forefront just recently where predators are actually soliciting children online trying to meet them and then, of course, sexually assaulting them. So it is a big and growing problem and we've just become much more aware of how it's going on.

CHIDEYA: Now, to many parents, the idea of an online community for kids is just completely out there. Should they take the time to catch up with technology and is it really the kind of issue that government can legislate away or is this something that parents just have to take hand of?

Rep. DEGETTE: This is an issue that needs attention from every segment of our society. I myself am the mother of two young girls, ages 12 and 16, and when we had our first hearing on this, I flew right home to Denver, Colorado, and sat them down and talked to them about this. It's the same thing - we used to say to our children, if a man comes up to you in the park or at the shopping mall, don't talk to them, run away. Now, we have to translate that to the digital era and say, if someone solicits you on your MySpace site and you feel uncomfortable or they ask you to do something that feels uncomfortable, don't do it and tell an adult. So it's the same type of parental oversight, just in a different medium.

CHIDEYA: And now you've been working on legislation that would require companies that provide broadband service to keep customer-identifying records for one year. What's the purpose of that move?

Rep. DEGETTE: One of the problems that we've seen is law enforcement officials find the activity on the Internet but they can't find the perpetrator without finding out what their Internet address is. So when they try to subpoena that from the Internet service provider, that information has been destroyed. So what I'm saying is, the Internet service providers already keep the information for some period of time, but there's no standard in the industry. So what needs to happen is they should keep it for a year so that if the law enforcement agency needs to subpoena that data they can find the perpetrator, then that data will be on file. And it is not the actual communications; it's just the Internet address.

There was a case where some Florida investigators saw a graphic live-time rape of a two-year old on the Internet. They were able to trace that to a computer in Colorado. But when they subpoenaed the Internet address from the telephone company, that information had been destroyed, and so they never did find the perpetrator and what's worse, they never found that child.

CHIDEYA: Well, thank you so much, Congresswoman DeGette.

Rep. DEGETTE: It's great being with you.

CHIDEYA: Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Colorado is a member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee, which held hearings on Internet safety for minors.

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