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‘Stewards’ of Children

Maryland Considers Filter Mandates for Device-Makers

Manufacturers of phones, tablets and gaming consoles should have responsibility under law for establishing default content filters that block minors from accessing pornography and obscene content, Del. Shaneka Henson (D) said Tuesday, arguing in favor of her legislation during a House Economic Matters Committee hearing.

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The Maryland Online Child Protection Act (HB-772) includes a private right of action for individuals and families to sue companies that fail to activate such design filters. She noted Alabama and Utah have approved similar bills. Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas are considering identical or similar bills. PornHub endorsed this approach, and enforcing these requirements at the device level helps avoid some constitutional issues associated with free speech, she said.

NetChoice, TechNet and the Computer & Communications Industry Association testified against the bill, saying it violates the Constitution by forcing companies to block legal content. Making censorship the default state of devices activated in Maryland would amount to speech infringement, said Amy Bos, NetChoice state and federal affairs director. Bos noted the U.S. Supreme Court struck down provisions included in the 1996 Communications Decency Act that attempted to restrict minors’ internet access. The Henson bill is a government incursion into the role of parents, who are the best “stewards of their children,” Bos said.

The bill’s definitions for “harmful to minors” and “obscene” are subjective, and content moderation creates significant speech issues, said TechNet Mid-Atlantic Executive Director Margaret Durkin. It’s not possible for manufacturers to design products on a state-by-state basis, she said. Such filters would also create significant confusion for adults trying to access the devices and content, and the bill’s age-verification requirements create privacy risks, said Khara Boender, CCIA state policy director.

Arguing for the measure, Peggy Cairns, education chairperson at Maryland Coalition Against Pornography, said online age-verification is becoming a standard way of dealing with porn exposure that’s occurring at younger and younger ages. Age-verification helps prevent minors’ access to cigarettes and alcohol, and applying the same standards to pornography is common sense, she added.

Del. Robin Grammer (R) presented a separate bill that would require age verification for online distribution of pornography. A leading contributor to depression in young males, pornography also is creating sexual dysfunction, he said. Chairman C.T. Wilson (D) said privacy concerns are related to requiring people to upload their driver’s license information to adult sites. It’s one thing to show a license at a store, but it’s another story to allow a company to hold the ID information in perpetuity. This creates risks of companies selling that information or losing it in a data breach, he said. Grammer said there are online standards for when an ID is uploaded and how soon it should be deleted. He said sponsors of HB-672 can work with legislators to include those standards.