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On Cyberbullying, Education and Enforcement Bills Compete for Congressional Action

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” of the day was whether or not it is possible to legislate internet safety.

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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.

Andrew Feinberg was the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

Public Safety

Lack of People Opting Into Emergency Alerts Poses Problems for Natural Disaster Scenarios

Disaster protocol experts remarked on lessons learned from fire outbreaks in Boulder County, Colorado.

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Photo of Lori Adams of Nokia discussing emergency communications response to Colorado wildfires at Mountain Connect by Drew Clark

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 26, 2022 – A lack of people opting into local emergency alerts poses a severe challenge for public officials during natural disasters, a panel of experts said Tuesday.

The panel remarked on just how significant the number of people not subscribed to emergency alerts is during a panel on disaster preparedness at the annual Mountain Connect conference.

In Boulder, getting emergency alerts is on an opt-in basis, whereas in other areas, it is opt-in by default.

The specific focus of the panel was on lessons learned from the outbreak of fires in Boulder County, Colorado this past December.

Fires presented challenges for providers

Several challenges of managing a response to the fires were recounted.

Blake Nelson, Comcast’s senior director of construction, stated that some of his company’s underground broadband infrastructure buried at a considerable depth was still melted from the heat of the fires to cause service outages for customers. Thomas Tyler, no stranger to disaster response as Louisiana’s deputy director for broadband and connectivity through several hurricane responses, pointed out that it is quite possible local officials may be skilled in responding to one type of disaster such as a hurricane but not another like a tornado.

Screenshot of Blake Nelson, Jon Saunders, Wesley Wright and Thomas Tyler (left to right)

The panel also spoke to the challenges of coordination between essential companies and agencies if people do not have personal relationships with those who work at such entities other than their own.

Successful emergency responses to service outages during disaster serve as models for the future, with Nelson stating the internet provider opened up its wireless hotspots to temporarily increase service access and Tyler saying that standing up Starlink satellite internet access helped bring broadband to Louisiana communities only accessible by bridge or boat during their periods of disaster.

Conversation moderator Lori Adams, senior director of broadband policy and funding strategy at Nokia, suggested keeping town servers not in municipal buildings but rather off site and Wesley Wright, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman, recommended the Federal Communications Commission’s practice of developing strong backup options for monitoring service outages.

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Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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Education

Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears

Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.

“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group SIIA, formerly known as the Software and Information Industry Association. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”

Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.

Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”

Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help

Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.

But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.

This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.

Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.

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