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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Porn site operators sue Indiana attorney general over user age verification law

One-third of all U.S. states have enacted or considered enacting laws requiring users to verify their age before they can view adult content on the internet.

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — An international group of pornography website operators sued Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita in federal court Monday, hoping to block a recent state law that requires users to prove they are over 18 before they can access adult content online.

The website operators — based in Cyprus, Czechia, Romania and Florida — were joined in their lawsuit by the California-based Free Speech Coalition, a nonprofit trade association for the adult entertainment industry.

The plaintiffs say Indiana's new law, which is set to take effect in July, violates the First, Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendments, as well as the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, which helps regulate porn at the federal level.

"Despite impinging on the rights of adults to access protected speech, it fails strict scrutiny by employing the least effective and yet also the most restrictive means of accomplishing Indiana’s stated purpose of allegedly protecting minors," the plaintiffs claim in their 34-page complaint.

Republican Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed the age verification bill into law in March. Authored and sponsored by GOP state lawmakers, it requires porn sites operating in the state to implement a "reasonable age verification method" to ensure any Hoosier accessing their websites is 18 or older.

This could mean asking users to provide a driver's license or state ID, or making use of a third party age verification service.

The law also makes porn site operators liable for legal damages if a minor gets around their age verification system, allowing parents to sue for up to $5,000, injunctive relief and court costs.

According to the National Decency Coalition, an anti-pornography organization, Indiana is one of 19 mostly Republican-controlled states that have enacted laws requiring user age verification for porn sites in the last two years. Louisiana began the trend in 2022 and has since been joined by Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. Alaska and Arizona have considered similar legislation.

State legislators have claimed they seek to use the laws to protect minors from content they deem harmful or inappropriate.

"Indiana has an opportunity to protect children from many types of pornographic material on the internet by simply limiting access to adults," one of the Indiana law's author's, GOP State Senator Mike Bohacek, said when introducing it in November 2023. "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 in Monday's suit against Indiana claim that state's law violates adults' right to privacy and could expose personal information to online threats.

"Any claimed benefit of age verification imposed by the Act does justify the burdens imposed on adults — the vast majority of whom value their online privacy and do not wish to expose exploitable personal data simply to view constitutionally-protected material they have every right to view," the plaintiffs wrote. "The high risk of data breaches and leaks resulting from compliance with the Act serves as an unavoidable barrier preventing adults from divulging their information over the internet."

Plus, the plaintiffs claim, the law is easy to circumvent: It would be difficult to block only Indiana IP addresses from accessing their porn sites, particularly near state borders, and there are a number of free and commercially available web technologies could allow Indiana users to get around such a block.

These include proxy servers, the open-source Tor Browser and virtual private networks that can make it seem as though users are accessing a website from a different country.

The plaintiffs suggested that user-end technologies, such as parental controls on children's devices, would be more effective at protecting minors from sexual content their parents don't want them to see.

"But such far more effective and far less restrictive means don’t really matter to Indiana, whose true aim is not to protect minors but to squelch constitutionally protected free speech that the State disfavors," the plaintiffs said.

The Indiana Attorney General's Office did not speak to the merits of the case when asked for comment.

"As with with every law passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, it's our offices duty to defend its constitutionality in court. This is no different," a spokesman for the office told Courthouse News in an email.

Challenges have followed age verification laws in other states, too. The Free Speech Coalition's attempt to block Utah's law is pending before the Tenth Circuit after a lower court dismissed its complaint last August. In April the Supreme Court declined to block Texas' law. Social media companies like Meta and Google joined a lawsuit against Mississippi over its own age verification law on Friday.

Follow @djbyrnes1
Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, First Amendment, Technology

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