May 13, 2024 - Politics

Why North Carolinians are emailing state reps about porn

Illustration of triple X's in the top left corner of an internet browser window.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

A new law that requires porn sites to verify user ages generated a lot of buzz in North Carolina earlier this year, but the debate has fizzled as the state waits to see the real impact.

Why it matters: The provision, tucked into a bill related to high school course requirements, aims to protect children from mature content online, proponents say. But it could have unintended consequences.

State of play: The clearest impact so far is Pornhub, one of the world's largest pornography websites, blocked access in the state just before the law went into effect.

  • "Any regulations that require hundreds of thousands of adult sites to collect significant amounts of highly sensitive personal information is putting user safety in jeopardy," Aylo, the parent company of PornHub, said in a statement.

What they're saying: Sen. Amy Galey, a Republican who proposed the age-verification language, touted Pornhub's departure as "a positive development for children and families in North Carolina" in an op-ed for Carolina Journal.

The other side: Spokesperson Mike Stabile of Free Speech Coalition, an adult industry trade association, says lawmakers were motivated to mirror legislation from across the country after taking note of Pornhub pulling out of other states. He calls the move "backdoor censorship."

  • "If the goal of this bill was to keep minors from accessing adult content online, it's a colossal failure," Stabile says.
  • Traffic is expected to move away from sites like Pornhub to non-compliant, free and easily accessible sites, usually from overseas, according to Stabile and Aylo.
  • Pornhub is widely considered more reputable because it verifies the age of those who upload content, requires model releases and removes content that is flagged for various reasons, Stabile says.

Yes, but: Pornhub has faced scrutiny for having revenge porn and underage videos in its vast library, forcing it to step up its moderation.

By the numbers: After Pornhub complied with Louisiana's new law and began verifying ages, traffic dropped about 80% there, according to Aylo.

  • North Carolina's law does not specify how those sites should verify user ages. In Louisiana, Pornhub users can verify their age by using a unique code from a state-approved app that digitally scans driver's licenses, New York Times reported.

The latest: The U.S. Supreme Court declined last month to halt Texas' similar age-verification law, which was challenged in court over alleged First Amendment violations.

Axios requested from several lawmakers public emails relevant to the new age-verification law.

Senate leader Phil Berger and Sen. Galey responded by press time.

  • Many constituents who wrote to Galey felt their Constitutional rights were threatened.

One person called the law a "slippery slope that threatens our fundamental right to privacy" and said it set the stage for more intrusive practices.

  • Another person asked if citizens would soon be asked for "an ID to walk out our door."
  • In a response email, Galey argued that people used to have to show an ID at an XXX store: "Requiring that someone prove their age before accessing adult materials is a very old idea and not unusual."

Other write-ins suggested lawmakers should prioritize other issues, like illegal immigration and crime or protecting kids from guns.

  • "Please, use your time wisely," one person wrote.

Many claimed this is a parental issue.

  • "If it is your own family that can not control their impulses, do better parenting," one email states.

One person told Berger, a Republican, last summer to "stand up to Pornhub, Mindgeek and other obscenity traffickers."

  • "Internet pornography is flourishing. It's hurting families. It's hurting kids," their email stated.

An employee of a Raleigh IT company came with a suggestion: Porn sites should be required to register domains using .xxx and have them blocked with a parental filter, the emailer said.

  • Galey responded that she was concerned about parents who can't afford or are unaware of that option.
  • "I'd like for the internet to be safe for all children, no matter their home circumstances," Galey added.

Some constituents voiced their concern with graphic content on social media and said people could use virtual private networks (VPNs) to hide their location and get around the law. Galey told one person that, even with a VPN, a porn company would still be "on the hook for liability."

  • Google searches for "VPN" spiked as Aylo blocked access in late December, Google Trends shows.

What's next: Galey told the News & Observer she's open to ideas to improve the legislation.

  • Free Speech Coalition and Aylo say filters on phones, computers and other devices are the best solution to keeping minors off adult sites.
  • "The technology to accomplish this exists today," Aylo stated. "What is required is the political and social will to make it happen."
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