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Utah law requiring porn sites verify user ages takes effect

May 3, 2023, 2:50 PM

FILE - Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler looks on as he sits on the Senate floor on March 2, 2023, ...

FILE - Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler looks on as he sits on the Senate floor on March 2, 2023, at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. A law requiring porn sites verify the age of their users takes effect on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Utah, a deeply conservative state where politics and culture are dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its implementation comes days after Pornhub blocked its site and videos in Utah in protest. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — You may soon be required to prove you’re older than 18 to watch porn in Utah.

A new state law requiring adult websites verify the ages of their users took effect on Wednesday, making the state at least the second to enact an age verification law to shield kids from sexually explicit materials that have become increasingly accessible online.

“It’s part of our job as society — and maybe a subset of my job as a lawmaker — to try to protect children now,” state Sen. Todd Weiler, the measure’s Republican sponsor, said. “I’m not gonna blame all of society’s ills on pornography, but I don’t think it’s helpful when a kid is forming their impressions of sex and gender to have all of this filth and lewd depictions on their mind.”

It’s currently illegal to show children pornography in Utah, however it’s rarely enforced. The law is Utah’s latest move to crack down on restrict how kids use the internet, including social media sites. It comes less than a year after Louisiana enacted a similar law and as additional states consider such policies as filters or age verification for adult websites.

Though heralded by social conservatives, the age verification laws have been condemned by adult sites and a broad coalition of groups that advocate for open internet access, digital privacy and free speech, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The group argued earlier this year that age verification laws are dangerous because it’s impossible to ensure websites don’t retain user data, regardless of if laws require they delete it.

Earlier this week, Pornhub blocked access to its content to protest the law. Those in Utah attempting to access the site since Monday have been greeted with a “Dear User” letter and accompanying video from adult film actor Cherie DeVille in which she reads the letter.

“Giving your ID card every time you want to visit an adult platform is not the most effective solution for protecting our users, and in fact, will put children and your privacy at risk,” DeVille says, reading from the letter. “The best and most effective solution for protecting children and adults alike is to identify users by their device.”

The letter says Pornhub, among the most widely viewed adult websites, will “completely disable access” in Utah due to the law, unless a “real solution” is offered.

It’s unclear if other websites will comply.

Critics, including Pornhub, argue that state-specific efforts to regulate adult websites can be easily circumvented with well-known tools such as VPNs that reroute requests to visit websites across public networks. They also have raised questions about enforcement, with Pornhub saying enforcement efforts drive traffic to less-known sites that don’t comply with the law and have less safety protocols in place.

A year after passing an age-verification requirement, Louisiana lawmakers have renewed their efforts to get adult websites to comply with its law. They are weighing a follow-up measure that would subject them to fines for not requiring users prove their age. It passed through the state House of Representatives in April but will need approval from the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards before becoming law.

Measures have also been introduced in Arizona and South Carolina. Arkansas passed a similar age-verification law for adult websites that takes effect later this summer

The Utah law opens adult websites up to lawsuits if they don’t verify the age of their users. It offers several age verification methods, including third-party age verification services and digital licenses that states are increasingly offering on mobile devices. Utah rolled out its digital license program last year but does not have an initiative similar to Louisiana’s “LA Wallet,” which allows residents to digitally store documents such as hunting licenses or proof of vaccination. The law attempts to address privacy and internet data harvesting concerns by requiring websites not retain the ID information.

It builds off years of anti-porn efforts in Utah’s Republican-supermajority Legislature, where a majority of lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It comes seven years after Weiler — who describes himself as the statehouse’s unofficial “porn czar” — led the charge to make a measure paving the way to requiring internet-capable devices be equipped with porn filters for children. Provisions of the law delay it from taking effect unless at least five other states pass similar measures.

That law passed over vehement objections from free speech advocates, who cited a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a federal law designed to protect children from internet pornography violated the First Amendment. Weiler said age-verification laws passing and under consideration in states are comparable to laws requiring age verification to purchase beer or see R-rated movies and were therefore constitutional.

Weiler likened the measure to Utah’s first-in-the-nation law prohibiting kids under 18 from using social media between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. and requiring age verification for social media users. He said he understands that, realistically some kids may bypass age-verification controls. But he wonders why opponents’ arguing enforcement concerns make internet age verification laws useless haven’t raised similar concerns about drivers speeding or online gambling.

“The internet was born, but it wasn’t born yesterday,” he said.

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AP reporters Sara Cline in Baton Rouge, La. and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark. contributed reporting.

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Utah law requiring porn sites verify user ages takes effect