Should ID be required to access online pornography?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Anyone trying to access online pornography in Louisiana must prove their age using a government ID, thanks to a new state law that went into effect at the beginning of the year.

The statute requires any website that contains a “substantial portion” of its content defined as “harmful to minors” to verify that potential users are over age 18 or risk being held legally liable. Reporters from the tech news site Motherboard who attempted to access the popular site Pornhub using a Louisiana-based IP address were met with a page asking them to submit age verification, which also directed them to a service that could access the state’s digital driver's license system.

“Pornography is destroying our children and they’re getting unlimited access to it on the internet and so if the pornography companies aren’t going to be responsible, I thought we need to go ahead and hold them accountable,” the law’s author, state Rep. Laurie Schegel, told a local news station.

Concerns about the effects pornography may have on children have persisted as long as porn itself has existed. Those fears have become especially pronounced because of the easy access and sheer volume of explicit content that the internet provides, though there’s debate over just how damaging pornography is to developing minds. Over the past few years, most of the focus has been on keeping content featuring the sexual exploitation of minors from being shared online — a push that successfully compelled sites like Pornhub to remove all content posted by unverified profiles.

Louisiana isn’t alone in looking to extend those requirements to users as well. Governments in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Australia have all considered mandating some form of age verification for online porn consumers. Last month, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah introduced a bill that would impose nationwide rules similar to Louisiana’s law.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for age-verification laws say they’re necessary to put a barrier between kids and the flood of explicit content that can easily be accessed online, which they argue can have profound negative impacts on children's development. Some add that it’s perfectly reasonable to ask adult consumers to make a small extra effort to access porn if it means underage users can’t. Some conservative Christians — many of whom believe pornography should be banned full stop — are in favor of anything that makes it more difficult for any group to view porn.

Critics on age verification have two main complaints. The first is about practicality. They argue that it is simply too easy for even minimally tech-savvy users to get around age-check barriers, meaning the laws won’t actually prevent children from seeing porn if they want to. There’s also concern that the extra obstacle might push porn consumers toward darker corners of the internet that — unlike mainstream porn sites — don’t include any controls to root out non-consensual or exploitative content

The second criticism centers around privacy. Though Louisiana's law bars any verification service from retaining personal data, online rights groups say there’s no way to ensure that critical information like driver’s license numbers or other identifiable data can be kept safe. There are also concerns about the risks of someone’s personal info being tied directly to the porn they consume and then made public, a prospect that could be particularly dangerous for LGBTQ people.

What’s next

The fate of Louisiana's new law, and other potential statues that may mimic it, could end up in the hands of the courts. In the past, the Supreme Court has rejected on free speech grounds several efforts to limit pornography access, but it remains to be seen whether a substantive legal challenge will be filed in this case.


It is far too easy for children to access deeply disturbing content online

“For the first time since the dawn of the internet, the porn industry is on defense. … Here, the U.S. lags. American kids need only click a box asserting that they are 18 to gain access to everything imaginable, and much that isn’t.” — Eric Schulzke, Deseret News

The law won’t actually prevent anyone from watching online porn

“Past attempts to censor minors’ access to adult content online have notably failed. Internet savvy young people have a multitude of ways to get around content filters and parental blocks. Louisiana’s latest effort will likely be no different.” — Lauren Leffer, Gizmodo

Age verification for porn is basic common sense

“This is good. Children need to be protected from obscenity. More states should pass such laws. … I don’t know if a pushback against porn can work in this day and age, but it is worth trying.” — Wesley J. Smith, National Review

The rules create a privacy nightmare

“It's no stretch of the imagination to assume that a disreputable adult site might take advantage of this new requirement and force visitors to provide oodles of personal information to be later used for marketing, to sell to data brokers, or to be stolen by attackers. This new law is also a boon for scammers keen to commit identity theft, because it trains people to hand over valuable personal information online.” — Max Eddy, PCMag

Anything that makes pornography harder to access is worth celebrating

“[Louisiana’s law] should be a model for states all across the country — a commonsense measure that is long overdue. Of course there will be ways to get around it, but anything that makes the job of these evil people, the porn providers, more difficult is to be celebrated.” — Rod Dreher, American Conservative

Extra barriers will push consumers to use much more harmful sites

“Privacy-minded adults (and teens blocked from legal access) may proceed to abandon U.S.-based porn platforms in favor of sites based in places without ID requirements. And those platforms may also have more lax protocols around piracy, performer safety, performer age verification, and profit-sharing with performers, as well as less (or no) responsiveness to U.S. law enforcement and courts when something is amiss.” — Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason

Supporters of age verification really want to ban porn for everyone

“If people believe (correctly or incorrectly) the government may have some way of knowing they’re visiting sites containing at least 33.3% porn, they’re less likely to visit these sites. So, this law may claim it’s for the children, but it’s all about steering people away from content certain legislators don’t like.” — Tim Cushing, Techdirt

Porn usage data could pose a major risk to LGBTQ people

“As homophobia and transphobia — especially homophobia in the context of porn — is rising, I could totally see the state zeroing in on people consuming gay porn, or lesbian porn, and either surveilling them further or criminalizing that.” — Olivia Snow, internet theory researcher and sex worker, to TechCrunch

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images