By the end of this month, porn will get a lot harder to watch in Texas. Instead of clicking a button or entering a date of birth to access Pornhub and other adult sites, users will need to provide photos of their official government-issued ID or use a third-party service to verify their age. It’s the result of a new law passed earlier this summer intended to prevent kids from seeing porn online. But it’s also part of a broad — and worrying — attempt to age-gate the internet.
Texas may be the biggest state rolling out anti-porn rules, but it’s not the first. In the last year alone, more than half a dozen states have passed similar legislation and even more are looking to follow suit. While these rules are focused on adult content, another raft of laws is aimed at locking down minors’ access to the internet more generally — including banning teens from social media without parental consent.
Republicans and Democrats alike are backing age-gating bills. For some lawmakers, it’s an extension of a yearslong fight against Big Tech — a way to rein in the alleged harmful effects of social networks on youth. For others, it’s part of a much broader culture war. Conservative state houses and school districts have recently altered public school curriculums and banned books predominantly written by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Online child protection bills are a new weapon in the fight.
These parallel movements have created an unprecedented appetite for a new kind of internet. It’s one where parents might have far more control over what minors see online and kids are more shielded from the darker spaces on the internet. It’s also one where adults and young people alike could have trouble reading, watching, or otherwise engaging with constitutionally protected speech and where privacy is hard to find.
“What we’re looking at is less about adult content and more about an attempt to remake the internet”
“These bills are hard to vote against,” Mike Stabile, public affairs director for the Free Speech Coalition, an adult entertainment industry group, said in an interview. “But it seems that what we’re looking at is less about adult content and more about an attempt to remake the internet in a way that makes it kid-safe.”
Both Big Tech and the porn industry have spotty reputations, making them easy villains in this crusade to save children. It’s likely why so few lawmakers have voted against these bills or even publicly come out in opposition to them, despite mounting concerns over speech and privacy.
“It does seem like a very clear backlash to not just tech, but to any sort of movement towards allowing young people to make their own decisions based on the information that they can access,” Jason Kelley, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said in an interview earlier this month.
Louisiana was the first state to successfully age-gate content online. Last year, the GOP-controlled state legislature passed a bill requiring porn sites — defined arbitrarily as sites where at least one-third of all content contains pornographic imagery — to verify users were over the age of 18.
It was easier for Louisiana than most other states to roll out these rules. It’s one of the few states that allows residents to digitally save their ID on their phone via a government-approved service called LA Wallet. Envoc, the developer of the service, has claimed it upholds user privacy. “It doesn’t identify your date of birth, it doesn’t identify who you are, where you live, what part of the state you’re in, or any information from your device or from your actual ID. It just returns that age to say that yes, this person is old enough to be allowed to go in,” Envoc project manager Sara Kelley said in an interview with WAFB last year.
But governments and larger companies have made similar promises over privacy and failed to live up to them before. France has proposed similar age verification restrictions on porn in the past, leading its data protection agency, CNIL, to investigate the security of current services on the market, determining that many were “intrusive” and for new, safer models to be developed.
The Louisiana bill inspired at least 17 copycats in state legislatures across the country with very few textual changes. Outside of Louisiana, digital forms of ID are less commonplace, so other states may require users to upload photos of their government IDs. Often, porn sites are allowed to employ third-party verification software that can rely on a variety of different methods to confirm age, from biometric facial scans to cross-referencing user age claims with public and privately available datasets.
Besides the outstanding privacy concerns, age verification critics have argued that the current systems are too expensive and could bankrupt porn sites. Dominic Ford, the creator of clip site JustFor.Fans, told The Verge that he’s recently started deploying age verification in states requiring it. “For the states that we are requiring ID verification, the numbers drop drastically,” Ford said, describing a decline in traffic.
As recently as May, only a quarter of people trying to access Ford’s site even clicked the link to verify their age and only 9 percent of those users completed the process. Ford said it costs his company around $1.50 per person to verify their age, and there’s no promise that those who follow through will buy anything. Pornhub’s response has been far more aggressive, blocking all traffic from some of these restrictive states rather than paying the extra cost.
Cratering the porn industry could be a desirable side effect for the conservative lawmakers pursuing these bills. Over the last few years, more than a dozen states, including many that have implemented age verification bills, have passed resolutions identifying porn as a “public health crisis,” arguing that it encourages violence despite little research backing these claims.
Shielding children from porn isn’t a controversial idea, even if the systems put in place to protect them add hurdles for adults. But the broader movement to limit the access of children and teens to the internet does more than hide porn. It effectively restricts access to politically fraught information related to gender and identity.
For other restrictive bills, GOP lawmakers may not be concerned with how their legislation harms queer youth — specifically a recent Utah law banning minors from social media without parental consent. The Utah Social Media Regulation Acts would require everyone to verify their age before joining a social network. If they’re under 18, a platform would need to receive parental permission for a kid to create an account and provide guardians access to all of their children’s posts.
For queer kids and teens, bills like the one in Utah could cut them off from online resources and communities, especially for kids in abusive households.
“Social media can play a critical role for young people to access resources and support in these circumstances, and laws like these may block them from access entirely,” Jason Kelley wrote in a May blog for EFF.
Similar ideas have found themselves in federal legislation as well. In July, the Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA, was voted out to the floor. The bill forces social platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, to protect kids from seeing harmful content on their platforms. But a fight is brewing over what’s considered “harmful” and who gets to define it.
Since it was first introduced, KOSA has been changed a handful of times to address outstanding concerns from civil rights groups. The bill loosely defines what content is considered “harmful” for kids, including content glamorizing suicidal ideation or eating disorders. But the definition is open-ended and could be interpreted in a variety of ways by its primary enforcers. Attorneys general in more conservative states, for instance, could sue a platform for making information related to trans healthcare available for kids to see. And while the bill doesn’t explicitly require age verification, critics argue its rules make running a site without it risky.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and KOSA supporter, hasn’t been shy about saying the bill will let lawmakers police content featuring trans people.
“Keeping trans content away from kids is protecting kids,” the organization said on X earlier this year. “No child should be conditioned to think that permanently damaging their healthy bodies to try to become something they can never be is even remotely a good idea.”
KOSA has a mixed bag of support. In his last two State of the Union addresses, President Joe Biden has pressured Congress to pass child safety legislation. But one of the main groups supporting many of these bills, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), previously named Morality in Media, lobbied against the rights of LGBTQ+ people and sex workers (NCOSE denies being anti-LGBTQ). NCOSE president Patrick Trueman previously worked at the Family Research Council, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a far-right hate group.
After publication, a spokesperson for NCOSE said that the group is a “nonpartisan organization” that exposes “the links between all forms of sexual exploitation,” and its president also worked at the Justice Department as chief of the child exploitation division.
“I think progressives had the idea that they wanted to regulate Big Tech without fully appreciating the degree to which they were playing with fire,” Evan Greer, Fight for the Future director, said in an interview with The Verge earlier this month. “We’re in a moment where the far-right has gone fully and completely mask off to advance an agenda that makes children profoundly unsafe and is about harming and attacking LGBTQ folks and children’s access to sexual health information and education about consent.”
KOSA is the closest it’s ever been to becoming law. It and the many other child protection bills are likely to be challenged in the courts on similar grounds to the 1996 law. Groups like the Free Speech Coalition have already sued states like Utah and Texas challenging the porn bans on the grounds of the First Amendment.
It wouldn’t be the first fight over restricting online content to make the internet kid-safe. In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act — which, among other rules, tried to make it unlawful for online platforms to show “obscene or indecent” content to minors. The American Civil Liberties Union sued to unravel the language related to pornography and ultimately won in 1997 after the Supreme Court decided that banning the material would infringe on the First Amendment rights of adults.
Laws like KOSA could meet a similar fate. “It’s hard to know because of the court that we have,” Jason Kelley said. “If they followed previous precedent then it would be likely that these would get struck down.”
If precedent holds, many of these laws could be short-lived. But their quick success will only inspire more and more copycats before the courts have time to catch up, especially with so few political leaders standing against them. Without more pushback, age verification bills, just like the ongoing book bans taking place in schools, will continue to fuel the right’s censorship fire all at the expense of speech protected by the First Amendment.
“Many people are afraid of standing up for free speech and for the access of minors to content because so many things are turned into divisive grooming or child trafficking conversation when they are not that at all. That sort of opinion can be weaponized right now by that very conservative, fairly right-wing portion of the electorate and of the population,” Jason Kelley said.
Updated August 29th, 2023 at 4:27 PM ET: Included additional context related to NCOSE’s organizational history and president’s work history.