States’ push to protect children online could reshape the internet

People in Louisiana who have been visiting Pornhub over the past few months have encountered a surprising amount of new demand. Before they could stream sexually explicit videos, they had to prove they were at least 18 years old.

That’s because the Louisiana legislature last year passed legislation requiring publishers of online material that could be “harmful to minors” to verify that their users are adults.

Louisiana is at the forefront of a broader national push to protect young people from potentially harmful content by requiring certain online services to block or restrict minors on their platforms. As a result, people in many other states may soon find that they, too, need to use credentials like digitized driver’s licenses to access a variety of services, including popular social media apps.

The proposed restrictions, introduced by at least two dozen states over the past year, could not only transform the online experiences of children and young people. They could also reshape the internet for millions of adults and start a tectonic cultural shift toward a more austere, age-restricted online world.

The spate of new bills may ease parents who fear their children will be bombarded with sexualized images or attacked by strangers online. But civil rights groups say certain bills could make it harder for Americans, including minors, to view online information to which they have a constitutional right and violate free speech principles.

Utah and Arkansas recently enacted legislation that would require social apps like TikTok and Instagram to verify the age of their users and obtain parental consent before granting accounts to minors. While many websites are already asking people signing up for accounts for their dates of birth — a self-reporting system that children can often subvert by entering an incorrect year of birth — the new state rules could prompt many platforms to adopt stricter age-verification systems using state ID cards.

At the end of April, four US senators introduced the “Protecting Kids on Social Media Act”. The law requires social networks to verify users’ ages, exclude children under the age of 13 and obtain parental consent for users between the ages of 13 and 17.

Laurie Schlegel, the Republican state representative who spearheaded the Louisiana law, said she was inspired to act last year after listening to a podcast in which singer-songwriter Billie Eilish Howard told Stern watching online porn as a child “destroyed my brain”.

Schlegel said she believes the digital world needs the same kind of adult zones that exist in the physical world, where consumers are often asked to show government-issued ID before they can purchase alcohol. As an example, she pointed out that in Louisiana, online gambling and alcohol delivery services are required to verify customers’ ages using IDs such as driver’s licenses.

“We agreed as a society not to let a 15-year-old go into a bar or strip club,” Schlegel said. “The same protections should apply online so you know a 10-year-old isn’t looking at hardcore pornography.”

Schlegel added that she drafted her age verification bill with potential free speech challenges in mind. To avoid confiscating health platforms, the Louisiana measure covers sexually explicit websites whose content meets a longstanding legal test for “material harmful to minors.”

But civil rights experts said some of the proposed restrictions on harmful material and social media sites could create age verification barriers for Americans who want to freely access information online. If the rules aren’t repealed, these experts argue, they could radically transform the internet — turning the online world into a patchwork quilt of walled fiefdoms, or forcing popular platforms to limit what they offer to avoid triggering the rules.

“It could not only interfere with freedom of expression for minors,” but cut off access to online information for adults, said Nadine Strossen, a past national president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Civil rights groups said they are considering a legal battle to try to stop certain new laws.

Attempts to impose age restrictions on the Internet have in the past met with constitutional concerns. In 1997, the Supreme Court overturned federal laws that would have made it illegal to knowingly broadcast or display “obscene or indecent” material to anyone under the age of 18, saying the rules restrict freedom of expression.

At that time, age verification software wasn’t widely available online. That is no longer the case.

Louisiana has become a national leader on this issue, in part because it has ready-made technology: a state-approved mobile app called LA Wallet that allows residents to take digital scans of their Louisiana driver’s licenses.

LA Wallet works by verifying a user’s ID with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. This allows Louisians to use the app like a physical license, for example to prove their age in a bar.

After the age verification for online pornography law went into effect in January, the number of new users of LA Wallet more than tripled to about 5,200 per day, according to Envoc, the Louisiana software company behind the app. Now, when Louisiana users visit a site like Pornhub, the site will prompt them to enter a unique code to verify their age through LA Wallet. The app then verifies the user’s age and notifies the porn site when the person is an adult.

The system is designed to protect privacy, said Calvin Fabre, president of Envoc. LA Wallet does not send personal information about its users to porn sites, he said, nor does it store information about the sites for which its users request age verification.

Since Louisiana enacted the measure, at least a dozen other states have introduced similar age verification laws for viewing online porn. Including Utah, which also has a digital driver’s license program. Many other states are piloting mobile licenses.

Nevertheless, there are loopholes. For example, to circumvent age verification, people in Louisiana may use location masking software that makes them appear as if they are in a different state.

But many sexually explicit websites have yet to set up age verification systems for users in Louisiana, said Solomon Friedman, a partner at Ethical Capital Partners, a private equity firm that recently acquired MindGeek, the company behind adult sites including Pornhub.

“Pornhub fully complies with the law,” Friedman said, “despite the fact that we know it doesn’t really protect kids because a lot of other sites don’t comply.

To encourage greater compliance, Schlegel recently introduced a bill that would allow the state to impose specific fines on pornography sites that do not verify the age of users.

Some social media platforms said they are stepping up efforts to identify and remove underage users.

Meta said it has started using artificial intelligence tools to identify young people who misrepresent their age on Instagram and Facebook Dating. TikTok, which uses a variety of methods to identify underage users, says it removed more than 75 million accounts last year that appeared to belong to children under the age of 13.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Justin Scaccy

InternetCloning is an automatic aggregator of the all world’s media. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials, please contact us by email – The content will be deleted within 24 hours.

Related Articles

Back to top button