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Age assurance laws trigger lawsuits in ongoing scuffle with porn, social media

New York passes child safety laws, tech lobby groups argue for free speech
Age assurance laws trigger lawsuits in ongoing scuffle with porn, social media
 

Lawsuits continue to accumulate in the battle over age verification measures intended to protect minors from accessing adult content online, as governments around the world confront the necessity of age assurance strategies in a loosely regulated techscape. The legislative push has roiled both pornographers and social media firms, who argue that age assurance laws violate privacy rights and ignore easy workarounds.

Canada seeks comments to inform draft age assurance guidelines

Canada is launching an exploratory consultation on privacy and age assurance through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC). A call for comments posted on the OPC’s website notes the potential for age assurance to effectively promote online safety for children. “We take the position that it is possible to design and use age assurance in a privacy-protective manner,” it says. But it also understands the concerns that surround age assurance technology.

“We recognize the complexity of this issue and the need to hear the views of a wide range of relevant parties,” says the OPC. “To that end, we are undertaking this exploratory consultation to provide parties with an opportunity to comment on our initial direction and thinking on this topic.”

The OPC plans to take comments into consideration in drafting a guidance document that “elaborates on and defines expectations for the development and use of privacy-protective age assurance.”

A number of key questions frame the discussion. What additional context should OPC be aware of in developing its future work? Are there other key resources – guidance documents, principles or standards – the OPC should review? Are there other significant privacy considerations it should be aware of? What complementary steps might the OPC consider taking to promote privacy and online safety for young people?

Comments can be sent via email to OPC-CPVPconsult1@priv.gc.ca until September 10, 2024.

Big Porn takes Indiana to court over age assurance law

The continued push for childrens’ privacy legislation and age assurance safeguards in U.S. states has triggered new lawsuits from adult content providers and lobby groups.

Courthouse News Service reports that a group of businesses, which includes the owners of the Internet’s largest porn content hubs as well as marketing firms, production houses and an industry association, have filed a suit in federal court against Attorney General of the State of Indiana Todd Rokita. The suit aims to block a state law requiring users attempting to access adult content to prove they are over 18 through a “reasonable age verification method.”

The definition could mean presenting a driver’s license or traditional ID document, or engaging a third-party age verification provider.

The plaintiffs are variously based in Cyprus, Czechia, Romania and Florida. Collectively, their brands include paysites such as Brazzers and Reality Kings, as well as free adult content sites Pornhub, YouPorn and Tube8 (all owned by Aylo Enterprises). They claim the new law, set to take effect in July, violates the U.S.’s First, Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendments, as well as the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act.

The law gives parents the right to sue porn site operators for up to $5,000 if a minor gets around their age verification system. One of the Indiana law’s author’s, GOP State Senator Mike Bohacek, says “these verification methods aren’t restricting the rights of legal adults, just tightening the law to ensure kids don’t access harmful material.”

But the plaintiffs’ complaint points to the risk of data breaches and unconstitutional personal privacy violations for law-abiding adults. Besides, which, “minors can use proxy servers, virtual private networks (VPNs), the Tor browser, and numerous other circumventions to bypass the Act’s verification requirements with ease; the law excludes search engines and most social media sites even though they pose a greater risk of exposure to adult content.”

Ultimately, it comes down to an accusation of bad faith: the plaintiffs say the true aim of law “is not to protect minors but to squelch constitutionally protected free speech that the State disfavors.”

Mississippi age verification law could outlaw new Taylor Swift record

Legal mud is also flying in Mississippi. The Associated Press reports that NetChoice, the lobby group representing silicon valley titans Meta, Google and Snap Inc., have launched a suit against Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, claiming a new state law violates the First Amendment.

Per a release from the group, “HB 1126 conditions Mississippians’ access to protected speech on handing over their sensitive, personal data. While violating the First Amendment, this also jeopardizes the security of all Mississippians, especially minors, by requiring them to surrender sensitive, personal information and creates a new target for hackers and other criminals to exploit.”

The law is broadly targeted at restricting online pornography. However, it also contains what NetChoice calls a “unique provision” applied to protected speech, which is the real thorn in the side of social media. “Broad content moderation parameters,” says NetChoice, “may result in the censorship of vast amounts of speech online. If the law goes into effect, some examples could include: The U.S. Declaration of Independence, Sherlock Holmes, The Goonies, Taylor Swift’s new album and much more.”

New York passes child data protection laws

A release from the office of speaker Carl Heastie says the New York State Assembly has passed two significant child online safety laws: the Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act and the New York Child Data Protection Act.

The SAFE for Kids Act (A.8148, Rozic) will prohibit social media platforms from providing addictive feeds to children younger than 18 without parental consent, and will require platforms to obtain parental consent to send notifications to children between 12:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.

The New York Child Data Protection Act (A.8149, Rozic) will prohibit online sites from collecting, using, sharing or processing the data of individuals under 18.

“As technology evolves, so must the ways we protect our kids from harm – both on and offline,” Heastie says. “These bills will give parents the tools to help protect kids from predatory practices that impact their mental health by eliminating the addictive personalized feeds and will make online privacy the default for New York’s children, preventing companies from collecting and using their data.”

Critics say Tennessee Act casts too wide a net, risks catching libraries

Tennessee is among states pursuing new laws with implications for age verification and adult content online, according to reporting from The Tennessean. The Protect Tennessee Minors Act, signed into law earlier in June, requires age verification for sites on which 30 percent of the content could be considered harmful to minors. Verification must repeat every 60 minutes. Acceptable methods include uploading ID documents – or, presumably, biometrics.

Noteworthy is the lengthy data retention period: the law wants sites to retain seven years of anonymized data on users who access it. For opponents, though, the main red flag is the ambiguity around what is considered “harmful to minors.” Some states have used the laws to ban LGBTQ material, sex education resources and other content that is not pornographic in nature. Mike Stabile, director of public affairs at the Free Speech Coalition, notes a recent announcement by a public library in Idaho announced last week that it would be banning minors because it could not guarantee they would not access would-be harmful material.

A related skirmish has erupted in Australia, where some argue that the government’s age assurance plan for online porn, prompted by a rise in domestic violence, incorrectly frames pornography as the problem.

“Part of healthy sexual development is understanding how sexual representations are shaped through media and culture,” says a piece in The Conversation. “Porn literacy – a subset of media literacy – is about reading porn well rather than taking an abstinence-based approach.”

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