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The US House of Representatives has voted by an overwhelming majority to ban social networking sites in schools and libraries. Critics have warned that the ban could apply to a wide variety of sites, some of them of vital educational value.

The House passed the Deleting Online Predators Act by 410 votes to 15. The Act forbids publicly funded organisations, such as schools and libraries, from allowing young people to access sites that have chat rooms or 'social networking' elements. Under the proposed law, adults in such institutions can ask for permission to access the sites.

Opponents argue that the definitions in the law are so vague that they could take in a vast array of existing commercial websites and damage the business potential of those sites and the research capabilities of schools and libraries.

It will be left to the Federal Communications Commission to decide what sites come under the control of the Act. Civil liberties groups are arguing in other legal disputes that the communications regulator already wields too much power.

"The social networking sites have become, in a sense, a happy hunting ground for child predators," said Republican congressman Michael Fitzpatrick before the vote. The Act prohibits the publicly funded bodies to give children access to sites where they might receive "unlawful sexual advances".

The move was condemned by the American Library Association (ALA). "ALA is disappointed by the House’s passage of DOPA," said ALA president Leslie Burger. "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."

"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," said Burger.

The proposed law will now pass to the Senate where a vote is expected early this month.

The law suggests that the FCC consider as social networking sites any site that allows users to edit a profile, chat to users or post personal data.

Under that loose definition a very large number of sites would qualify, including Amazon.com, which allows users to post lists of preferences and create profiles of authors, Ebay, in which each user has a profile which changes as they shop, or any number of major news sites, where users can discuss stories online.

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