WASHINGTON, D.C.—Representative Jim Matheson, a Democratic member of Congress from Utah, is angry and he isn’t going to take it anymore. Sick and tired of all the porn sites that can be accessed by … well, anyone, Matheson told the Deseret News last week that he is preparing a bill that would require porn sites to use sophisticated age verification technologies. Oh, he also wants to impose a 25 percent tax on porn sites to pay for the enforcement of the age verification.
“Historically (pornography) has been age-restricted at a point of sale that's a brick-and-mortar store," Matheson told the paper recently. "For us to assume that since it's on the Internet that we should ignore it is wrong. As a society we've already made a decision that we want to restrict sales to a certain age."
Matheson is not thinking of regular websites, either, but access to mobile porn sites, as well. "Everyone says 'keep your computer in the family room so you can see what your kids are doing,’” he said, holding up his BlackBerry. “Guess what? They're all walking around with one of these now. It's not in the living room anymore.”
Attempts to impose mandatory age verification on porn sites are nothing new, of course, and extend all the way back to the first Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which was passed in 1998 but which never took effect after the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2007 lower court decision that found the law in facial violation of the First and Fifth Amendments of the United States Constitution. COPA required all commercial distributors of "material harmful to minors" to restrict their sites from access by minors.
There have been several similar attempts since, including in 2005 and 2006, when Matheson actively supported bills, including Sen. Blanche Lincoln's Internet Safety and Child Protection Act, which never made it out of committee. Another later attempt in 2009 by Rep. Bart Stupak, (D-MI), the Online Age Verification and Child Safety Act—which would have directed the Federal Trade Commission to enforce mandatory online age verification for “any pornographic website accessible by any computer located within the United States to display any pornographic material, including free content that may be available prior to the purchase of a subscription or product”—also died in committee.
Not enough specific information is available about Matheson’s planned bill, which reportedly would “require websites selling pornography to employ the same kind of age-verification software already being used for online purchases of products like tobacco and wine,” to know if it has solved any of the constitutional problems encountered by its predecessors, but the fact that it seems to target paysites only leads one to believe that the architects of this plan need to do some more research about the trends in online pornography viewing by consumers of adult entertainment before they presume to regulate it. Otherwise, they might once again get...um...egg on their faces.
The congressman's promise to impose a content-based tax on the industry may also hit a constitutional brick wall, but hopefully he will be wearing a helmet when he tries to ram that baby through.