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Utah lawmakers table bill that would require porn filters on every phone, tablet sold in state

Internet Outage-East Coast
Posted at 7:40 AM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 08:44:45-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill working its way through the Utah Capitol would require any cell phone sold in the state to come with a filter turned on that would block pornographic material. While bill sponsors say it's to protect children, it faced a lot of opposition at a House committee hearing Wednesday.

HB 72 is simple, backers say: Require cell phone and tablet manufacturers to sell devices with content filters already turned on that would block pornographic material.

Under the bill, manufacturers would face a couple thousand dollars in fines if they're found to violate the law. If a child gets access to "harmful material" on that device, the manufacture could also face a penalty. Adults would then be given a passcode to turn those filters off.

But that's why many said HB 72 is problematic, poking holes in the legislation during Wednesday's hearing that ended with lawmakers putting the bill on hold.

State Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, introduced HB 72 during a meeting of the state House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee, saying that she knows someone who was inadvertently exposed to porn when he was about 9 or 10 years old.

The exposure, she said, would affect him for years — leading to a negative impact on his marriage, in his roles as a father, on his work and in social interactions.

Pulsipher felt HB 72 was a small way to help prevent children from accidentally gaining access to porn.

"We're not asking to do something that we don't already have on our devices," she said. "We're just asking to have those filters turned on, to just make it a little bit easier for parents and safer for our kids."

Many applauded her bill during the hearing, namely moms who described the difficulty in turning on content-blocking filters on their children's phones.

Eleanor Gaeton, Director of Public Policy at the National Center for Sexual Exploitation, said that research demonstrates the link between porn exposure and detrimental effects on the brain. She also said porn also puts individuals at increased risk for committing sexual offenses they witness.

Gaeton and Chris McKenna, Founder and CEO of Protect Young Eyes, talked about needing to prevent that harm done to a child who stumbles upon pornographic content inadvertently.

"We will prevent early accidental exposure to potentially life-altering content for Utah children," McKenna said of HB 72.

But several also spoke out against the bill, explaining that it's extremely problematic.

Yes, children accessing porn is bad, they all agreed. But critics argued that it's also not a great idea to require a cell phone manufacturer to decide what content to filter.

Cameron Demetre, Executive Director for California and the Southwest at TechNet said the blocking and filtering capabilities just don't make the bill feasible, and compliance would not be possible.

"The constitutional problems with this bill are numerous," said Carl Szabo, VP and general counsel at NetChoice.

"Although well-intentioned, CTIA believes this bill is not necessary and is unworkable," said Lisa McCabe with CTIA, a trade association for wireless communications industry.

Dave Davis, President of Utah Retail Merchants Association and Todd Bingham with the Utah Manufacturers Association each focused on the impact on cell phone manufacturers.

Bingham said trying to restrict a manufacturer and make them liable for content on the device they sell is akin to making Sony or Samsung liable because a child got access to HBO on one of their devices.

Davis said it would constrict the supply of smart devices into Utah because big manufacturers would not make uniquely configured devices. This would then push people to buy devices outside the state, he said.

"I think that there are some significant problems with this bill, that are going to result in some very important, unintended consequences," he said.

While some legislators on the committee expressed support of the bill, others discussed having concerns with it.

In the end, the committee adjourned the meeting without moving the bill forward, and it's on hold.

However, the committee did approve a bill substitute that states that the bill will not go into effect until five additional states have adopted similar language. It gives a 10-year period for that to occur.

Utah already has already passed some of the most restrictive laws regarding pornography in the country. Last year, several pornography websites added opt-in features for Utah residents to their home pages in order to comply with state law.

Child psychologist Douglas Goldsmith said he's seen children who have become addicted to pornographic sites, adding that the filter is a false sense of security.

"The problem is how vast the access is," he said. "They can go on YouTube and find this information, they can go on TikTok, they can go on Reddit, on any of these sites they can find stuff that we don't want our children looking at."

Even if a filter is put into place, he said kids find ways to share passwords or turn the filters off.

"Parents don't understand that they should be sitting next to their children when they're on an iPad, and even just when they're on the internet," he said.

What he suggests: Relying on education, not just a content-blocking filter.

"Parents need to be really informing themselves more of all of the dangers of the internet," he said. "Because it's not just porn. There's a ton of danger on the internet."

This story was originally published by Lauren Steinbrecher on KSTU in Salt Lake City, Utah.