On January 1, 2023, the Internet in Louisiana looked a little different than the Internet in Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas—its next-door state neighbors. And on May 1, the Internet in Utah looked quite different, depending on where you looked, than the Internet in Arizona, or Idaho, or Nevada, or California or Oregon or Washington or, really, much of the rest of the United States.
The changes are, ostensibly, over pornography.
In Louisiana, today, visitors to the online porn site PornHub are asked to verify their age before they can access the site, and that age verification process hinges on a state-approved digital ID app called LA Wallet. In the United Kingdom, sweeping changes to the Internet are being proposed that would similarly require porn sites to verify the ages of their users to keep kids from seeing sexually explicit material. And in Australia, similar efforts to require age verification for adult websites might come hand-in-hand with the deployment of a government-issued digital ID.
But the large problem with all these proposals is not that they would make a new Internet only for children, but a new Internet for everyone.
Look no further than Utah.
On May 1, after new rules came into effect to make porn sites verify the ages of their users, the site PornHub decided to refuse to comply with the law and instead, to block access to the site for anyone visiting from an IP address based in Utah. If you’re in Utah, right now, and connecting to the Internet with an IP address located in Utah, you cannot access PornHub. Instead, you’re presented with a message from adult film star Cheri Deville who explains that:
“As you may know, your elected officials have required us to verify your age before granting you access to our website. While safety and compliance are at the forefront of our mission, 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.”
Today, on the Lock and Code podcast with host David Ruiz, we speak with longtime security researcher Alec Muffett (who has joined us before to talk about Tor) to understand what is behind these requests to change the Internet, what flaws he's seen in studying past age verification proposals, and whether many members of the public are worrying about the wrong thing in trying to solve a social issue with technology.
"The battle cry of these people have has always been—either directly or mocked as being—'Could somebody think of the children?' And I'm thinking about the children because I want my daughter to grow up with an untracked, secure private internet when she's an adult. I want her to be able to have a private conversation. I want her to be able to browse sites without giving over any information or linking it to her identity."
"I'm trying to protect that for her. I'd like to see more people grasping for that."
Tune in today.
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Show notes and credits:
Intro Music: “Spellbound” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
Outro Music: “Good God” by Wowa (unminus.com)
Additional Resources and Links for today's episode:
"A Sequence of Spankingly Bad Ideas." - An analysis of age verification technology presentations from 2016. Alec Muffett.
"Adults might have to buy £10 ‘porn passes’ from newsagents to prove their age online." - The United Kingdom proposes an "adult pass" for purchase in 2018 to comply with earlier efforts for online age verification. Metro.
"Age verification won't block porn. But it will spell the end of ethical porn." - An independent porn producer explains how compliance costs for age verification could shut down small outfits that make, film, and sell ethical pornography. The Guardian.
"Minnesota’s Attempt to Copy California’s Constitutionally Defective Age Appropriate Design Code is an Utter Fail." - Age verification creeps into US proposals. Technology and Marketing Law Blog, run by Eric Goldman.
"Nationwide push to require social media age verification raises questions about privacy, industry standards." - Cyberscoop.
"The Fundamental Problems with Social Media Age Verification Legislation." - R Street Institute.
YouTube's age verification in action. - Various methods and requirements shown in Google's Support center for ID verification across the globe.
"When You Try to Watch Pornhub in Utah, You See Me Instead. Here’s Why." - Cheri Deville's call for specialized phones for minors. Rolling Stone.