Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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    The Erosion of Digital Liberties- The Battle Over Internet Censorship

    A Deep Dive into the Ongoing Struggle Between Online Freedom and Protecting Minors

    In an era where information flows freely across the digital landscape, a shadow looms over the realm of online content. The right to access information, even of the adult variety, is being increasingly curtailed by a wave of legislation sweeping across American state legislatures. The battleground? The hallowed halls of internet censorship.

    As the digital curtain falls, eager consumers of adult content find themselves entangled in a web of stringent requirements. Before indulging in their desires, they must orchestrate the perfect lighting, retrieve their identification documents, and meticulously capture multiple snapshots. Only then can they embark on their journey to view “Throbbin’ Hood: Prince of Beaves.”

    This labyrinthine process is no longer an isolated incident; it is a looming reality in 18 state capitals, with more poised to follow suit. The battleground for personal freedoms is now centered around the accessibility of explicit content.

    The assault on digital liberty in the United States is not new, but it has gained substantial momentum this year. Bipartisan age verification laws are cropping up, demanding that adults surrender sensitive personal information to access content deemed “harmful to minors.” Proposed legislation goes even further, suggesting that all electronic devices be equipped with porn-blocking filters unless buyers expressly opt-out, prove their age, and, in some states, pay a fee. Bills like the EARN IT Act and KOSA, backed by both Democrats and Republicans, pledge to safeguard children while potentially infringing upon the rights of adults to an open internet.

    Is the American Cyberrealm Under Siege?

    Censorship cloaked in the veil of ‘protecting children’ is not a new tactic. In 2018, FOSTA-SESTA promised to combat child sex trafficking but instead removed vital Section 230 protections from online platforms in cases of known sex trafficking. This ignited a frenzy of social media guideline revisions, with even eggplant emojis on Instagram facing the threat of extinction. Dating apps like Tinder began expelling users suspected of being sex workers, while the Marriott hotel chain bizarrely thought surveillance of single women in its bars would combat trafficking.

    Recent intrusive laws introduced by 25 states and Congress bear names that exude wholesomeness: Protect Young Minds Online Act, Kids Online Safety Act, and Protection of Minors from Harmful Material on Internet Act. Who could possibly oppose shielding minors? (Surprisingly, some do.)

    Michael Stabile, Director of Public Affairs at the Free Speech Coalition, highlights the deceptive nature of these laws: “A lot of [these laws] seem common sense, but upon closer examination, their true impact will be pressuring platforms to discriminate against certain forms of expression — and certain demographics.”

    While lawmakers may present these efforts as ‘common sense,’ their constitutionality remains uncertain, awaiting judgments from the courts. A Texas law slated to take effect on September 1st faced a last-minute preliminary injunction, deeming House Bill 1181 unconstitutional. This legislation would have mandated age verification and plastered adult websites with dubious health warnings, such as claims that pornography fuels prostitution and child exploitation, or that it diminishes cognitive function – assertions largely unsupported by credible evidence.

    The breadth of this law is astonishing, encompassing not only explicit content sites but anything deemed “harmful to minors.” Its vague wording leaves room for potential age verification requirements for seemingly innocuous content, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race.

    Stabile recounts a call from a sex education website concerned about falling under these laws, wondering whether they should self-censor. The implications ripple beyond the realm of adult content.

    Navigating the Age Verification Maze

    Louisiana blazed a trail in 2022, enacting a law demanding age verification for websites featuring a “substantial” amount of content “harmful to minors.” Under this law, if a minor accessed such content, their parents could sue the site for psychological harm and attorney fees. Seventeen states have proposed similar copycat bills, with seven already passing them into law.

    However, the lack of lawsuits in Louisiana has prompted legislators to institute fines, imposing a $5,000 daily penalty on non-compliant websites. Consequently, traffic to adult sites in the state plummeted by 80%. Was denying access to pornography the true goal all along?

    Defending the First Amendment

    Critics argue that the comparison between age verification for adult content and showing an ID for certain purchases is flawed. Michael Stabile refutes this analogy, emphasizing the distinction between public and private spaces. “When I go to get a glass of wine or a beer from the fridge, I don’t have to show my ID to anyone.” In the privacy of one’s home, similar expectations should prevail, supported by parental control features that are free and easy to set up.

    The First Amendment not only protects free speech but also secures the right to access that speech without undue government intrusion.

    The battle over online censorship is not unique to the United States. The UK government contemplates its own Online Safety Bill with age verification for “lawful but harmful” content. In Australia, the eSafety Commission has opted against age verification due to concerns about tech and user privacy, instead focusing on educating parents about filtering software.

    Mandatory Device Filters: A Controversial Approach

    Utah led the charge in 2021 with a law mandating parental controls on all devices sold or activated within the state. Only adults possessing a passcode, obtained through ID verification, can deactivate or uninstall the filter. Some argue that this approach treats grown adults like children, placing barriers between them and legal content.

    New Jersey took this concept further, proposing a $20 unlock fee to remove the filter from new devices. While it never advanced to a vote, Oklahoma introduced a similar bill this year, illustrating how contentious ideas can spread.

    Fortunately, Utah’s law is contingent on five other states passing similar device filter legislation. Yet, at least 11 states have recently attempted their versions.

    The Fair Access to Banking Act: A Glimmer of Hope

    Amidst this climate of digital repression, a ray of hope emerges in the form of the Fair Access to Banking Act. While primarily aimed at protecting gun manufacturers, this bill emphasizes making judgments based on individual risk metrics rather than political or ideological criteria.

    Adult performers often face account closures when banks discover their profession, but this bill offers the potential for relief. The Free Speech Coalition encourages bipartisan efforts to protect the rights of marginalized workers, demonstrating that change is possible through collective action.

    A State-by-State Overview of Anti-Porn Legislation

    Below is a comprehensive state-by-state guide to anti-porn bills attempted or passed during the 2023 legislative session:

    (For the full breakdown, readers can refer to the original article)

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