States’ Push to Protect Kids Online Could Remake the Internet

States’ Push to Protect Kids Online Could Remake the Internet

People in Louisiana who visited Pornhub in recent months were met with a surprising new demand. Before they could stream sexually explicit videos, they had to provide proof that they were at least 18.

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

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

The proposed restrictions, introduced by at least two dozen states over the last year, could alter not only the online experiences of children and adolescents. They could also remake the internet for millions of adults, ushering in a tectonic cultural shift to a stricter, age-gated online world.

The spate of new bills may come as a relief to parents who worry that their children are being bombarded by sexualized images or targeted by strangers online. But civil liberties groups say that certain bills could make it difficult for Americans, including minors, to view online information they have a constitutional right to see, violating free speech principles.

Utah and Arkansas recently enacted laws that would require social apps like TikTok and Instagram to verify their users’ ages and obtain parental consent before granting accounts to minors. While many sites already ask people signing up for accounts for their birth dates — a self-reporting system that children can often subvert by entering a fake birth year — the new state rules could prompt many platforms to institute more stringent age-verification systems involving government IDs.

In late April, four U.S. senators introduced the “Protecting Kids on Social Media Act.” The bill would require social networks to verify users’ ages, bar children under 13 and obtain parental consent for users who are 13 to 17.

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

Ms. Schlegel said she believed the digital world needed the same kind of adult zones that exist in the physical world, where consumers are often asked to show a government ID before they can buy alcohol. As an example, she noted that Louisiana already required online gambling and alcohol delivery services to verify patrons’ ages through credentials like drivers’ licenses.

“We have agreed as a society not to let a 15-year-old go to a bar or a strip club,” Ms. Schlegel said. “The same protections should be in place online so that you know a 10-year-old is not looking at hard-core pornography.”

Ms. Schlegel added that she had crafted her age-verification bill with possible free speech challenges in mind. To try to avoid sweeping in health platforms, she said, the Louisiana measure covers sexually explicit sites where the content meets a longstanding legal test for “material harmful to minors.”

But civil liberties experts said that some of the proposed restrictions on harmful material and social media sites could create age-verification barriers for Americans seeking to freely access online information. If the rules were not overturned, these experts argue, they could radically alter the internet — by changing the online world into a patchwork of walled-off fiefdoms or causing popular platforms to narrow their offerings to avoid triggering the rules.

“It could jam up free speech not only for minors,” but cut off access to online information for adults, said Nadine Strossen, a former national president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Civil liberties groups said they were considering litigation to try to halt certain new laws.

Attempts to impose age restrictions on the internet have faced constitutional challenges in the past. In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down federal rules that would have made it illegal to knowingly send or display “obscene or indecent” material to people under 18, saying the rules curtailed free speech.

At the time, age-verification software was not yet widely available online. That is no longer the case.

Louisiana emerged as a national leader on the issue partly because it had ready-made technology in place: a state-approved mobile app, called “LA Wallet,” that allows residents to make 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. That allows Louisianans to use the app as they would a physical license to, say, prove their age at a bar.

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

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

Since Louisiana enacted the measure last year, at least a dozen other states have introduced similar age-verification bills for viewing online porn. Among them is Utah, which also has a digital drivers’ license program. Many other states are pilot-testing mobile licenses.

Even so, there are loopholes. To get around the age checks, for instance, people in Louisiana may use location-masking software, which can make them appear to be in another state.

But many sexually explicit sites have not yet set up age-verification systems for Louisiana users, said Solomon Friedman, a partner at Ethical Capital Partners, a private equity firm that recently acquired MindGeek, the company behind adult sites like Pornhub.

“Pornhub is fully complying with the law,” Mr. Friedman said, “notwithstanding the fact that we know that it doesn’t actually protect children because many other sites are not complying with it.

To encourage greater compliance, Ms. Schlegel recently introduced a bill that would allow the state to impose specific monetary penalties for pornography sites that failed to verify users’ ages.

Some social media platforms said they were intensifying their drive to identify and remove underage users.

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

Even so, Ms. Schlegel in Louisiana is pushing for broader safeguards.

Her state’s civil code, she noted, does not allow companies to sign contracts with minors without parental consent. In March, she proposed a bill to clarify that online services are subject to the contracting rules. The Louisiana House unanimously passed the bill in late April and it now heads to the Senate. Such a measure could require sites like Reddit and Roblox to obtain a parent’s permission for all Louisiana users under 18.

Ms. Schlegel said her legislation was meant to send a message to powerful online platforms: “You need to be more responsible when it comes to our children.”

Kashmir Hill contributed reporting.

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