WASHINGTON, June 12, 2009 - Hill staffers and online safety said Friday that two bills currently before Congress take very different approaches to issues of cyberbullying and online.
Speaking at a panel sponsored by the Family Online Safety Institute, CEO Stephen Balkam said that the key question is whether or not it is possible to legislate internet safety. Over the past decade, multiple commissions of countless experts have determined that there is "no silver bullet" to protecting young people as they venture online.
Instead, the consensus of each succeeding study has been that a "combination of tools" is required, and that "education is key," he said. A similar study in the United Kingdom reached many of the same conclusions, he said.
And while Balkam noted the panelists represented widely differing viewpoints on the best way to approach the problem, he would not minimize the seriousness of the issue: "None of us will deny challenges exist," he said.
"Children and adults today have... come to rely on the Internet for everything," said Mercedes Salem, legislative counsel for Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. Sanchez is the sponsor of the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would impose criminal penalties for severe harassment which Salem said "crosses a line" beyond normal schoolyard antics.
"We're not dealing with face to face bullies anymore," she said. Instead, what was once a shove on the school playground is now reaching home to after school hours, and to students’ mobile devices.
"There's a big difference" when a bully can attack "any time of the day, anywhere."
And while education is crucial to prevent such behavior from becoming status quo, Salem stressed the need for legislation to "punish people who cross the line" into criminal behavior. "This is not about hurt feelings," she said, "but punishing criminal acts."
Jason Tuber, a legislative assistant for Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., did not dispute the severity of cyberbullyin or the consequences of ignoring it. "Everyone can agree this is a serious problem," he said.
But in answering Balkam's original question on legislating safety, Tuber was blunt: "I think the answer is simply no." But Congress can make it more likely that children are safe by providing resources for parents, educators, and other stakeholders, he said.
Sen. Menendez's bill, the School and Family Education about the Internet Act, would provide for grants for educational programs and award them based on objective criteria, with the grants adjustable from year to year based on changing needs and technologies, Tuber said.
Progress and Freedom Foundation Senior Fellow Adam Thierer, who has served on prior task forces mentioned by Balkam, called the Menendez bill's educational approach "infinitely constitutional" -- a stark contrast to other child safety laws which have been struck down by courts on First Amendment grounds.
Enforcement and regulation-based laws don't go anywhere but to court, Thierer said. Speaking of the decade-long battle over the Child Online Protection Act, which was overturned last year, he asked: "How did that make kids better off?"
Thierer would not rule out criminal sanctions, but only in cases of "really aggrieved online harassment," which he took pains to differentiate from "kid on kid" conduct traditionally handled by schools. And real "adult on kid" harassment – the sort that served as the impetus behind the Megan Meier Act, "may be a different story," he said.
Salem defended her boss' legislation as providing a new option for prosecutors, and not a knee-jerk reaction to a single incident. "We want to stop this behavior: We need new tools, new laws." Schools may be well-equipped to deal with traditional bullying, she said, but they can't address conduct that may be criminal.