Earlier this year, Louisiana became the first U.S. state to implement a state law requiring government identification to access a pornographic website like Pornhub or XVideos.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently announced that she supported a measure requiring social media companies like Twitter and Meta to verify the age of new users, especially minors, who would need their parents’ consent and age verification to do so.
Virginia lawmakers adopted legislation that would require “stringent” verification to access porn sites. However, this bill would go further than Louisiana’s law by requiring Virginia porn users to provide government identifications — potentially biometrics scans and other data.
There are many other cases, but I digress. There are red flags with these laws and proposals.
Unintended consequences exist in every aspect of policymaking. An unintended consequence is an economic and social science concept loosely defined as the unanticipated results of particular actions, including government and legislative interventions like laws and regulations.
From a digital rights perspective, laws that require media consumption platforms to conduct a campaign of sensitive data collection to boost identity verification could lead to an information security crisis. It should be noted that age verification systems are simply surveillance systems.
Age verification as a legal mandate would only do something to protect youth on the internet. Forcing age verification documentation, like government identification, would diminish privacy rights and data security risks. Furthermore, these schemes could lead to unwanted data being sold to other companies for a profit.
A nationally representative poll by the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University earlier this year found that most people don’t feel “comfortable sharing a government identification document like a driver’s license with social media companies in order to verify age.” Submitting a government identification to access sites with adult content is far more likely to be a behavior even more unpopular with users. Two out of three Americans said they aren’t comfortable sharing identification information with social media.
As with some of these laws, the center found seven out of 10 Americans were uncomfortable submitting a minor’s age identification document with social media firms to verify age. This is notable because it shows sobering disapproval of these laws among the general public.
However, age verification proposals continue to pop up. Whether this is to access a porn site or a social media network, age verification is a tool that shouldn’t be forced upon an industry out of ideological necessity. There are several factors crucial to reliable age verification. These factors require reliable verification processes, processes must cover the entire jurisdictional population in question and must comply with any existing data and privacy regulations.
Considering these factors, age verification laws in the United States are falling significantly short. For example, there needs to be more uniformity in digital regulations across the states. Since each state retains its own degree of sovereignty, state legislatures — especially those controlled by the Republican Party — will create laws similar to the Louisiana law but are either way more or far less stringent. This creates a patchwork of state laws, some of which could carry criminal and civil penalties, that prevent otherwise law-abiding users (especially adults) from accessing a website compliant with the federal government and protected by the First Amendment.
Age verification laws in this context can’t work as designed and will fall victim to unintended consequences like constitutional challenges, potential data breaches of sensitive data, the blocking of specific content (regardless of it being pornographic or age-restricted) from certain jurisdictions, and a loss of business and digital sales tax revenues if such a case is applicable.
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital civil liberties organization, put it best when it said, “No one should have to hand over their driver’s license just to access free websites.”