Hit & Run

$20 Fee for Porn Access Proposed in Rhode Island

Device makers would be required to block porn, prostitution hubs, and all content that fails "current standards of decency."

|

Ingram Publishing/Newscom

Rhode Island has joined a host of other states in considering an irrational measure to regulate online porn by charging consumers a $20 access fee. But the Rhode Island bill actually beats others like it in terrible and unconstitutional requirements, such as requiring the blockage of not just nude imagery or porn sites but any content that "affront(s) current standards of decency"… whatever that means.

The bill, sponsored by state Sens. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence) and Hannah Gallo (D-Cranston), is packed with ill-defined terms and extreme mandates.

To start, it would require all internet-enabled devices sold in the state to come with "a digital blocking capability that renders inaccessible sexual content and/or patently offensive material." But as many previous schemes to block sexual content have shown, it's nearly impossible for automated censors to distinguish pornographic sexual content from sexual wellness websites, reproductive health organizations, ancient art, educational information, and all sorts of other non-obscene or pornographic stuff.

And the Rhode Island bill wouldn't just block overtly sexual content but anything deemed "patently offensive," too–even though there's no clear definition of this term. The state currently defines "patently offensive" as material "so offensive on its face as to affront current standards of decency."

Makers of computers, smartphones, and other internet-enabled products would be left to determine for themselves what exactly "current standards of decency" means and how to put that in algorithmic terms.

The proposal doesn't stop there in terms of confusing and unconstitutional dictates, though. It would also require devices to automatically block "any hub that facilitates prostitution"—again, not a legal or well-defined category of content.

And device makers would also have to "ensure that all child pornography and revenge pornography is inaccessible" on their products—something that sounds great but is completely technically infeasible. If it were that easy to stop the spread of child porn, companies would be doing it already.

What makes all of this especially ridiculous is that under Ciccone and Gallo's proposal, anyone over 18-years-old could have the filter removed by making a request in writing and paying a $20 fee. The money would go to the state's general treasury "to help fund the operations of the council on human trafficking." (But… if people are paying the state $20 to access prostitution sites, doesn't that make the state a trafficker?)

The fact that lawmakers think blocked "patently offensive" material should be able to be accessed for a low price just shows how toothless their proclamations that the legislation is necessary to protect public health or morals. But what lawmakers would get out of the measure is a nice new source of steady income and a registry of people who want the filter removed.

Plus, the fees imposed on individual consumers would be pocket change compared to the money the state could make shaking down tech companies. Under Ciccone and Gallo's proposal, failure to implement the technically impossible filtering requirements could mean being sued by the state or any Rhode Island resident, being held liable for civil damages, and being charged up to $500 "for each piece of content that was reported but not subsequently blocked."