On August 6, 2006, the World Wide Web turned 15 years old. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited as the developer of the first Web browser and Web server, said, "I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and—ta-da!—the World Wide Web."
The Unexpected Explosion of Public Information
On August 6, 1991, this service went online. Needless to say, it was an idea whose time had arrived. So unprepared was the world for the incredible impact and growth of the Web that it wasn't until six years later that the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) Office of Research tried to figure out what was going on.
OCLC is the library cooperative that is dedicated to the public purposes of furthering access to the world's information. It is a service that catalogs the contents of over 55,000 libraries in 110 different countries. If you frequent your public library and look up a book on one of the library terminals, you are probably using an OCLC service.
With the World Wide Web exploding on the Internet, OCLC saw the potential to expand its ability to serve wider audiences and a greater number of libraries, using Tim Berner-Lee's incredible invention.
How Big Is the Web?
In 1997, the OCLC Office of Research initiated a project aimed at answering that question. The project's objective was to develop and implement a methodology for characterizing the size, structure, and content of the Web.
The OCLC developed a technique for locating Web sites by using a random number generator to obtain a 0.1% random sample of IP addresses. For each of these IP addresses, an HTTP connection attempt was made on port 80, the standard port for Web sites. If an HTTP response was received, the address was chalked up as a public Web site hit. This, of course, did not account for private Web sites that operated on a different TCP port or Web sites that lurked behind proxy servers and firewalls. Yet, nonetheless, the results knocked the socks off previous estimates.
In 10 years, by 2001, Berners-Lee's construct of a World Wide Web had grown from one site (his) to 3,100,000 public Web sites. From OCLC's estimate, it appeared that 35% of the Web as a whole was publicly available. Public sites accounted for approximately 1.4 billion Web pages, and the average size of a public Web site was 441 pages. From OCLC's perspective, this was the equivalent of nearly a billion and a half more volumes of information that it could potentially catalog.
The Growth of Web Access in Libraries and Schools
It was no wonder then that public libraries and schools began placing terminals and PCs, equipped with Web browsers, in places where patrons and students could do their own research. The old manual card catalogs were thrown out of many libraries, and the automated OCLC library catalogs were served through a Web browser. Instead of a single library, composed of physical book shelves inside the physical walls, library patrons and students could search the stacks of thousands of libraries, place a "hold" on a book, and—through the mechanism of inter-library loan agreements between regional institutions—have the book pulled from the shelf of some distant stack and delivered to their local circulation librarian.
The World Wide Web was a revolutionary instrument that radically changed the nature of libraries, and it also changed the nature of the services and the patrons who used those services. Very quickly, students of all ages began using the availability and access to the Internet as means of doing their own research. In addition, patrons could browse vast quantities of public information, initiate private email accounts, and visit forums or purchase books through services like Amazon.com. As a result, libraries began to regain their historic status as hubs of community activity and centers for distributing information. Schools were suddenly opened to information that went beyond the confines of textbooks. It was an Internet success story of enormous importance to state and local officials.
The Threat to Children and to Information Access
Ironically, this success has also brought tremendous pressure on libraries and schools to institute control and censorship and—after 9/11—to even make the search histories of patrons available for government scrutiny. This pressure continues today, with a recent bill passed on July 26, 2006.
Here is a brief overview of legislation impacting library patrons and students who use a library's Internet services:
- In December 2000, Congress enacted the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) to address concerns about access to offensive content over the Internet on school and library computers. CIPA imposed requirements on any school or library that received federal funding support for Internet access or internal connections from the "E-rate" program, a program that makes Internet technology more affordable for eligible schools and libraries.
- In January 2001, Congress enacted H.R. 3162, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (US Patriot Act), which gives federal officials the authority to conduct searches of business records, including library and bookstore records, with a court order issued by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and requires that, if such a search is conducted, no one involved will divulge that the search has taken place.
- On July 26, 2006, just weeks before the World Wide Web's 15th birthday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.R. 5319, the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 (DOPA) to require public libraries and schools to restrict access by minors to sites considered to provide social networking services.
Defining Social Networking
- The site is a commercial entity.
- The site permits registered users to create an online profile that includes detailed personal information.
- The site permits registered users to create an online journal and share such a journal with others.
- The site elicits highly personalized information.
- The site enables communication among users.
It's the broad definition of social networking services within H.R. 5319 (DOPA) that currently has Internet activists and the civil libertarians quite concerned. Clearly, the bill aims at sites like MySpace.com, which registered its 100,000,000th profile on August 6 and which has been the social networking service identified in several high-profile child-predator cases. Some of these cases were on the television show MSNBC Dateline, entitled "To Catch a Predator."
In the Dateline expose', MSNBC used volunteers from the organization called Perverted Justice to create profiles of teenage boys and girls on social networking chat rooms. Then, posing as underage children, the volunteers arranged meetings with a number of men at real addresses. Over 150 men—in three different states over a two-year period—were filmed by the Dateline crew as they showed up at the houses of the fictional children.
The master of ceremonies of the NBC program, Chris Hansen, subsequently testified before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and played excerpts from the videos of these encounters to the assembled committee members. This graphic testimony, as well as other testimony by parents and children, served as the background noise that generated H.R. 5319 (DOPA), which passed the House with a vote of 410 to 15.
Who Is Impacted by DOPA?
Putting aside the ultimate constitutionality of H.R. 5319 (DOPA), it is yet another irony that the broad language of the bill that the House has passed would, in fact, prevent libraries and schools from providing access to the very services that MSNBC's parent company, MSN.com, provides. Why? Because MSN's services, offered through a variety of clickthrough links meets the very definition of "social networking" identified by the legislation:
- The site is a commercial entity (MSN.com).
- The site permits registered users to create an online profile that includes detailed personal information (Hotmail.com).
- The site permits registered users to create an online journal and share such a journal with others (Windows Live Spaces).
- The site elicits highly personalized information (Windows Live Spaces).
- The site enables communication among users (Windows Live Spaces is integrated with MSN Messenger).
In fact, with such a loose definition, most Web sites, including Yahoo! 360°, MC Press Online, Amazon.com, IBM Developer Works, and thousands of other services (including the forums page of Perverted-Justice.com) would be eligible to be filtered out by this law.
Any commercial enterprise that provides forums, blogs, or wikis that might contain demographic information about forum members could be construed to be a social networking site and thus be filtered out of schools and libraries.
The Impact of DOPA on Libraries
H.R 5319 (DOPA) has yet to be considered by the U.S. Senate, but given the overwhelming support in the House, it will probably be passed with great fanfare and signed into law before the 2006 elections. It has become a political bandwagon upon which a conservative Congress can ride a child protection scheme through the fall elections.
The impact on libraries and schools, however, is highly problematic. "This unnecessary and overly broad legislation will hinder students' ability to engage in distance learning and block library computer users from accessing a wide array of essential Internet applications including instant messaging, email, wikis and blogs," said American Library Association (ALA) president Leslie Burger. "Under DOPA, people who use library and school computers as their primary conduits to the Internet will be unfairly blocked from accessing some of the Web's most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications. As libraries are already required to block content that is 'harmful to minors' under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), DOPA is redundant and unnecessary legislation."
Brainchild at 15 Years of Age
Tim Berners-Lee's little brainchild has turned 15. Perhaps the final irony is that, were the World Wide Web a real child studying about itself in a U.S. school or library today, it would probably be prohibited from examining the scope and breadth of its own impact or even studying the technology that it has itself fostered.
Happy birthday, WWW, from all of us at MC Press Online! And remember, a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing in the U.S.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.