California could require age verification to visit porn sites

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Republican Assemblymember Juan Alanis, a former Stanislaus County sheriff’s sergeant, and San Ramon Democrat Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a women’s rights advocate, may not have a lot in common. 

But last week they stood on the floor of the California Assembly and persuaded their colleagues to advance legislation that would have California join a handful of conservative states in passing laws requiring pornography sites to verify the ages of visitors to ensure they’re adults. 

“This bill is not about harming the adult entertainment industry or attacking those that work for it,” said Alanis, a former crimes-against-children detective. “This bill is simply about protecting children – and the harmful exposure to increasingly available and increasingly violent sexual material online.”

Bauer-Kahan, a leading women’s rights advocate in the Legislature, told her Assembly colleagues that research shows 40% of college-aged women have reported being choked during sexual encounters, something she said their partners learned from watching porn. 

“We may think this is a purity issue, but it goes well beyond that,” she said. “It is about the safety of our children. It is about making sure that they learn healthy behaviors.”

Their arguments resonated. None of the 80 members of the Assembly voted against Alanis’s Assembly Bill 3080, though 15 were listed as not voting. As CalMatters reported, lawmakers regularly decline to vote to avoid going on record against a controversial bill. 

Under the bill, porn sites would need to take “reasonable steps” to verify a user is an adult, such as using age-verification software or having the user provide the site a credit card or government-issued ID. The bill would require that any data collection would ensure the user’s anonymity and would not be used to create a record of the user’s online activity.

The bill now moves to the Senate. There, the Democrat-controlled chamber is likely to hear testimony from the same parents rights and church groups, free speech advocates and porn producers who testified last month before the Assembly’s judiciary and consumer protection and privacy committees.

Porn stars, conservative family groups orgs testify

Joseph Kohm, director of public policy at the Colorado-based Family Policy Alliance, told the Assembly Judiciary Committee last month that children regularly visit online porn sites featuring sexual violence and verbal degredation.

“And what this means is that they are learning about sexuality from a perspective that portrays sex as physical abuse,” Kohm told the committee.

Free speech advocates countered that if California enacted the bill, it would stifle the First Amendment rights of adult Californians to access online porn. Members of the porn industry also testified it would reduce traffic to their sites if the restrictions are enacted as they have been in other states.

“It’s a customer deterrent,” queer porn performer Jiz Lee told the judiciary committee. “And if it was enacted in California, where a lot of our subscribers are based, it would hurt our business.”

Alison Boden, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, a porn industry trade group, told the judiciary committee that less than 1% of pornsite users actually complete the age-verification process in states that have passed the requirement. 

 “What they do, according to our data, is hit the back button and find a site that doesn’t comply with the law,” she said.

Porn ID laws in other states

Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Kentucky have adopted age-verification requirements for porn sites based on “model legislation” from the Center for Renewing America, a conservative activist group, according to the California bill’s legislative analysis. The organization’s website lists its motto as “For God. For Country. For Community.”

The bill’s legislative analysis noted that the online porn site Pornhub blocked users in those states after the age-verification requirements became law. 

Last month, Democratic Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed a similar bill.

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Free Speech Coalition’s challenge to the Texas law, which had been upheld by a federal appellate court.  

The laws are new, and some were immediately blocked from taking effect due to legal challenges, so there’s little public data about how effective they’ve been in preventing kids from accessing porn or the impact on web traffic to porn sites.

Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan speaks in support of SCR 135, which would designate May 6, 2024 as California Holocaust Memorial Day on the Assembly floor at the state Capitol in Sacramento on April 29, 2024. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

The European Union in December passed its own age-verification law. Bauer-Kahan told the Assembly that California should follow those European countries’ lead. 

“Europe, which has much stronger privacy laws than our country, has done this,” she said. “They have found a way to put the verification of your age on your phone. A token is sent to the website without your personally identifiable information, and then you, if you’re an adult, can access legal pornography.”

Assemblymember Juan Alanis speaks at a press conference before a swearing-in ceremony for newly elected Republican representatives at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Dec. 5, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Alanis told the Assembly last week that his bill isn’t that different from how retailers have traditionally prevented children from accessing other types of adults-only products. His bill, he said, would include porn sites in the same California law that prevents children from purchasing products including tobacco, fireworks, spray paint and firearms.

“I believe that California requires its own tailored approach,” he said. “That’s why my team and I have worked … to craft a workable bill using an existing statute that California has long used to protect our children from other types of harm.”

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