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A new Utah law led PornHub to ban access to its site for everyone in the state

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Utah, when users logged on to the adult content site Pornhub on Monday, they were met with a message that Pornhub, quote, "made the difficult decision to completely disable access to the website in Utah." That block came two days before a state law went into effect that requires all adult sites to verify users' ages. Saige Miller, politics reporter at KUER in Salt Lake City, is here now to explain all the details around the fight between Utah and Pornhub. Welcome to the program.

SAIGE MILLER, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: Break down this state law for us.

MILLER: So the law, SB 287, passed unanimously. And, as you said, it requires anyone who wants to access an adult content site to show that they are at least 18 years of age to do so. They could use a government record or a third-party identification service in order to check. And they would have to provide this verification every single time they logged on. Bill sponsor Republican Senator Todd Weiler said during a Senate committee hearing that...

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TODD WEILER: You should be able to have to prove you're an adult to view pornography because it's illegal for children to view it, and it's illegal for adults to show it for children.

MILLER: But he also added that it would be on the burden of the adult content websites to verify somebody's age, and this has absolutely upset sites like Pornhub because they say there's no way to comply with this law. Utah doesn't have a digitized government identification service to do this, whereas Louisiana, that has a similar law, does. So ultimately, because of this, Pornhub says they can't comply with the law, nor do they want to be held liable for not following it, so they decided to ban access to the site for everybody in the state.

RASCOE: OK, so a lawsuit has been filed against this legislation or this new law. What claims does it make?

MILLER: The Free Speech Coalition filed the lawsuit. It's a trade organization for the adult entertainment industry. They believe this law is unconstitutional for various reasons. They say it restricts freedom of speech and information by not allowing people to access these sites without handing over personal data. They also cite a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that age verification requirements, like the one instituted in Utah, are unconstitutional so long as there are less intrusive methods, such as device-level internet filters. They say parents aren't taking the opportunity to block their children from using these sites and therefore there should just be a larger educational campaign. Therefore, they should not have to restrict it for everybody who is of age. Mike Stabile is the director of public affairs for the Free Speech Coalition.

MIKE STABILE: Eventually, they're going to have to defend this law, and they're going to lose. And it's going to cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's a pointless exercise.

MILLER: The Free Speech Coalition expects a hearing within the next few weeks. They're asking a U.S. district court to file an injunction, and we will expect a decision soon.

RASCOE: What's been the reaction to all of this?

MILLER: Senator Todd Weiler, who was the bill's sponsor, is a pretty vocal person on Twitter, and his constituents are upset. People are throwing profanities at him. Others are commenting that the Utah Legislature is overstepping their bounds. And from what I saw, only one message he posted was applauding his efforts to protect children by blocking sites like Pornhub or requiring age verification. But Utahans are finding their way around this Pornhub block. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, in Utah have skyrocketed. According to a recent Google Trends search, Utah tops all 50 states for VPN searches by more than double. So I think this just proves people will get around government or company intervention to access what they want to access.

RASCOE: Saige Miller, politics reporter at KUER in Salt Lake City. Thank you so much, Saige.

MILLER: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Saige Miller