Lawmakers in 13 US States Mulling Blanket Internet Censorship

For some American’s, Internet censorship may seem like a problem found in distant countries. More recently, however, lawmakers are considering legislation that would bring censorship onto US shores.

Internet censorship has always been a very touchy subject. There are arguments about slippery slopes and protecting children. Over the last several years, we’ve seen censorship crop up in many countries around the world. In 2012, Russian Orthodox Activists demanded that ISPs censor Facebook. The reasoning behind it is that the website promotes homosexuality. The demands followed the passage of Internet censorship laws in the country.

In the UK in the same year, ISP’s implemented their own blacklists. The blacklists were controversial in and of itself, however, when news organizations and advocacy group websites wound up on the blacklist, outrage only grew. A year earlier, the UK’s Prime Minister’s suggestion on Internet censorship even received praise from China.

In 2010, Australia’s push to institute censorship failed to make it into law. The optional mandatory censorship regime would force ISPs to block so-called “inappropriate” material online. The plan featured no opt-out options for Australian’s. Even by 2010, the Internet censorship laws has been a long-standing controversy. The initial censorship regime was supposed to block pornography online. Controversy blew up in 2007 when a teenager, during his free time, wound up cracking the $84 million porn filter.

Do know that the above is just a small taste of the history of Internet censorship.

The common thread over the years in various countries all over the world has always been that Internet censorship is completely unworkable. There are way too many ways to get around it. We discussed this at length in 2011 when the PROTECT IP act debate was raging. As mentioned above with the UK filtering, when censorship is pushed through anyway, it winds up being ripe for abuse. Content that is politically inconvenient has a history of ending up on blacklists as well.

While history is littered with examples of how Internet censorship ends up being a failure, that doesn’t stop lawmakers from trying to push for it. It seems the US is going to try for another round in trying to institute blanket Internet censorship.

The EFF (Electronic Frontier foundation) detailed this more recent push earlier this month. Republican’s in 13 different states are pushing to institute censorship on the American Internet in the name of stamping out online pornography. From the report:

At its heart, the model bill would require device manufacturers to pre-install “obscenity” filters on devices like cell phones, tablets, and computers. Consumers would be forced to pony up $20 per device in order to surf the Internet without state censorship. The legislation is not only technologically unworkable, it violates the First Amendment and significantly burdens consumers and businesses.

Perhaps more shocking is the bill’s provenance. The driving force behind the legislation is a man named Mark Sevier, who has been using the alias “Chris Severe” to contact legislators. According to the Daily Beast, Sevier is a disbarred attorney who has sued major tech companies, blaming them for his pornography addiction, and sued states for the right to marry his laptop. Reporters Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny uncovered a lengthy legal history for Sevier, including an open arrest warrant and stalking convictions, as well as evidence that Sevier misrepresented his own experience working with anti-trafficking non-profits.

The bill has been introduced in some form Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming (list here). We recommend that any legislator who has to consider this bill read the Daily Beast’s investigation.

But that’s not why they should vote against the Human Trafficking Prevention Act. They should kill this legislation because it’s just plain, awful policy.

The EFF highlights not only the mandatory pre-installed “obscenity filters” on devices in the state, but also a number of other elements. This includes a censorship tax where someone could pay $20 to have the filters removed on each device. If someone does pay this tax, they have to sign paperwork in writing so that stores would be able to track their customers. They also have to read through a so-called “warning” notice as well.

In January, the debate in Utah began to reach a boiling point when the research used to back the filters was blasted by critics. Lawmakers were using the research to call pornography a national “health crises” that needed addressing. The Huffington Post disagreed with this sentiment. From the article:

The problem is, Herbert and Weiler have failed to prove any causal relationship between pornography and psychological harm. The “public health crisis” resolution they passed used research that was unfinished, inconclusive and carried out by a known anti-pornography group.

Yet lawmakers are going after porn, hard. Weiler’s newest round of evidence against internet pornography is either another gross misjudgment of science or a flat-out lie. In an interview with KSL, he cited a “U.S. Navy study” that found a link between pornography and problems with new recruits over the past decade.

“Men are having a harder time forming and keeping relationships and there’s been a dramatic increase in domestic violence and domestic abuse,” he said.

It’s just not true ― the study he appears to be referencing found nothing of the sort, and wasn’t funded by the Navy. It looked, in part, at three active-duty Navy members who claimed to have erectile dysfunction after watching too much porn. It never once mentions domestic violence or its apparent relationship to porn, and a military article clearly states that “more study is needed to prove causation between internet pornography use and sexual difficulties.” Its own authors note that the study does “not reflect the views of the Navy,” and declined to discuss the findings.

While there are criticisms, it seems that the same research is being pushed in other states. This was pointed out recently. From the Huffington Post:

Lobbyists and lawmakers in other states are now using the resolution as proof that potentially unconstitutional pieces of legislation are viable.

The model legislation, called the Human Trafficking Prevention Act, would slap a pornography filter on cell phones, laptops and tablets until users pay a $20 fee. Device manufacturers would be required to put a label on material deemed “obscene” and you’d be blocked from seeing it until you paid what is essentially a tax on porn.

The American Civil Liberties Union was quick to call this a violation of the First Amendment, saying that pornography is a free speech issue.

“This is definitely an attempt to infringe on people’s rights,” said Vera Eidelman, an attorney at ACLU. She called the model legislation “crazy,” noting that lobbyists would like to have a government-managed list of people who had paid to access porn.

And yet such measures are making some headway. Chris Sevier ― the mastermind behind the act and an avid anti-gay marriage lobbyist who thinks his past conviction on an assault charge is “fake news” ― has already managed to convince lawmakers in 13 states to draft legislation

One thing worth noting in these latest pushes for Internet censorship is that the push is on devices and not at the ISP level. Such attempts are not as common as targeting the ISP’s, but it isn’t unprecedented. Last year, there were reports about how Windows had to alter their Windows 10 OS just to meet China’s notoriously tough censorship laws. Since so little is known about the deal or how other devices are altered for the Chinese market, it will likely never be known how effective such measures are.

Still, it’s hard to imagine if such measures in the US would be effective. A lot of questions can be raised about device level censorship. How does the state prevent non-censored devices from entering the state? What about devices already being used by people? What about people who build computers from scratch? Everything that we know so far about the proposed censorship regime revolves around just making pornography go away from the Internet and less about the nitty gritty details on how to make such enforcement practical.

While we are waiting to see where things go from here, history tells us that this sort of push never ends well. What we do know is that, if history has told us anything at all, it’s that ensuing chaos and legal or constitutional challenges are pretty much inevitable.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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