More than a dozen state legislatures are considering a bill called the “Human Trafficking Prevention Act,” which has nothing to do with human trafficking and all to do with one man’s crusade against pornography at the expense of free speech.
At its heart, the model bill would require device manufacturers to pre-install “obscenity” filters on devices like cell phones, tablets, and computers. Consumers would be forced to pony up $20 per device in order to surf the Internet without state censorship. The legislation is not only technologically unworkable, it violates the First Amendment and significantly burdens consumers and businesses.
Perhaps more shocking is the bill’s provenance. The driving force behind the legislation is a man named Mark Sevier, who has been using the alias “Chris Severe” to contact legislators. According to the Daily Beast, Sevier is a disbarred attorney who has sued major tech companies, blaming them for his pornography addiction, and sued states for the right to marry his laptop. Reporters Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny uncovered a lengthy legal history for Sevier, including an open arrest warrant and stalking convictions, as well as evidence that Sevier misrepresented his own experience working with anti-trafficking non-profits.
The bill has been introduced in some form Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming (list here). We recommend that any legislator who has to consider this bill read the Daily Beast’s investigation.
But that’s not why they should vote against the Human Trafficking Prevention Act. They should kill this legislation because it’s just plain, awful policy. Obviously, each version of the legislation varies, but here is the general gist.
Manufacturers of Internet-connected devices would have to pre-install filters to block pornography, including “revenge porn.” Companies would also have to ensure that all child pornography, “revenge pornography,” and “any hub that facilitates prostitution” are rendered inaccessible. Most iterations of the bill require this filtering technology to be turned on and locked in the on position, by default.
This is terrible for consumer choice because it forces people to purchase a software product they don’t necessarily want. It’s also terrible for free speech because it restrains what you can see. Because of the risk of legal liability, companies are more likely to over-censor, blocking content by default rather than giving websites the benefit of the doubt. The proscriptions are also technologically unworkable: for example, an algorithm can hardly determine whether an item of pornography is “revenge” or consensual or whether a site is a hub for prostitution.
To be clear, unlocking such filters would not just be about accessing pornography. A user could be seeking to improve the performance of their computer by deleting unnecessary software. A parent may want to install premium child safety software, which may not play well with the default software. And, of course, many users will simply want to freely surf the Internet without repeatedly being denied access to sites mistakenly swept up in the censorship net.
A Censorship Tax
The model bills would require consumers to pay a $20 fee to unlock each of their devices to exercise their First Amendment rights to look at legal content. Consumers could end up paying a small fortune to unlock their routers, smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers.
Anyone who wants to unlock the filters on their devices would have to put their request in writing. Then they’d be required to show ID, be subjected to a “written warning regarding the potential dangers” of removing the obscenity filter, and then would have to sign a form acknowledging they were shown that warning. That means stores would be maintaining private records on everyone who wanted their “Human Trafficking” filters removed.
The Censorship Machine
The bill would force the companies we rely upon to ensure open access to the Internet to create a massive censorship apparatus that is easily abused.
Under the bill, tech companies would be required to operate call centers or online reporting centers to monitor complaints that a particular site isn’t included in the filter or complaints that a site isn’t being properly filtered. Not only that, but the bill specifically says they must “ensure that all child pornography and revenge pornography is inaccessible on the product” putting immense pressure on companies to aggressively and preemptively block websites to avoid legal liability out of fear of just one illegal or forbidden image making it past their filters. Social media sites would only be immune if they also create a reporting center and “remain reasonably proactive in removing reported obscene content.”
It’s unfortunate that the Human Trafficking Prevention Act has gained traction in so many states, but we're pleased to see that some, such as Wyoming and North Dakota, have already rejected it. Legislators should do the right thing: uphold the Constitution, protect consumers, and not use the problem of human trafficking as an excuse to promote this individual’s agenda against pornography.