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Required pornography filters on cellphones? A good step in the right direction

Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, discusses HB72 with members of the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Standing Committee at the State Office Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The bill would establish filter requirements and enforcement mechanisms for tablets and smartphones activated in the state on or after Jan. 1, 2022.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Utah has been a leader when it comes to recognizing the deleterious effects of pornography and trying to do something about it. Four years ago, lawmakers endured withering criticism and cynical jokes as they passed a resolution recognizing what ought to be obvious, that pornography is a public health hazard.

Now, lawmakers are considering HB72, a bill sponsored by Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, that would require all cellphones sold within the state to come with content filters turned on, rather than off, as they currently are. Adult purchasers would be given a passcode with which to disable the filter, should they choose.

The bill currently is being held by the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee. Earlier this week, the committee voted to adjourn rather than take a final vote, most likely because of concerns about the bill’s constitutionality.

Among other things, the bill would make phone manufacturers civilly liable for not providing and enabling filters. Manufacturers said they are responsible for building products, not the content people access on those products.

But HB72 is a good step in the right direction. We urge Pulsipher to continue to work on ways to satisfy legal concerns so that the bill, in its substantive form, can become law.

The bill would not take effect until at least five other states have passed a similar law. That is out of deference to concerns manufacturers might have about changing settings on phones destined only for the relatively small market of Utah consumers. We agree the idea should be adopted broadly. Clearly, this is an appropriate issue for Congress to tackle under the interstate commerce clause. It is a problem so large that one state could have but a limited effect in stemming the tide alone.

But make no mistake, pornography’s effects on the brain, particularly one that is young and developing, are well-documented. A paper published by the American College of Pediatricians identified problems such as mental disturbance and unrest, acting out, violent behavior and the adoption of “a false narrative regarding human sexuality and how men and women form healthy sexual relationships.”

Through pornography, male children, in particular, learn to see women as objects, rather than human beings. The ability to eventually form “authentic, stable relationships” is inhibited. The viewing of pornography is also addictive.

The Journal of Pediatric Health Care website says children today begin interacting with digital media at the age of 4 months, with good and bad results. “One such risk is exposure to pornography.”

This is hardly a trivial matter. It is of utmost importance to the rising generation, which has little choice but to trust that today’s adults are looking out for its welfare.

Some critics of HB72 say parents should take a greater responsibility for teaching their children. That supposes a child’s environment is completely controlled by its parents. A child may have responsible parents, but may interact daily with friends who do not, and who expose that child to readily available material.

Other critics say a filter would provide a false sense of security, given that pornography is accessible in many ways. We agree it is widespread, but what is society’s responsibility for chipping away at that accessibility? HB72 is not the final answer. It would be one important tool.

Pulsipher’s bill is reminiscent of Britain’s attempts to control pornography by requiring internet providers to restrict it unless the user specifically requests access. It is a method that protects free speech rights while also protecting the most vulnerable citizens.

In the four years since the Legislature endured scorn for passing a resolution recognizing pornography as a health hazard, 15 other states have done the same. This demonstrates how little steps matter.

We urge Rep. Pulsipher and her colleagues to to continue efforts to pass HB72 out of committee, just as we urge other lawmakers to find new and different ways to stymie the spread of pornography and its harmful effects on society.