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Utah bill would require activated porn filter software on new phones, tablets

Bill advances to full House for consideration

Julia Waldon uses an iPad to check inventory at Hello! Bulk Markets in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
An iPad is used to check inventory at a Salt Lake City business in this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Following two previous rejections by lawmakers, a third attempt to advance a measure to compel makers of cellphones and tablets to have porn filtering software installed and switched on for all Utah sales earned narrow approval Thursday.

HB72, sponsored by Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, has been revised along a journey that started last October at an interim legislative hearing. The current version, in addition to calling for compulsory, switched on content filtering software on internet-connected mobile devices, also includes an enacting clause that requires five other states to adopt similar measures before the rule becomes law in Utah.

And Pulsipher dropped potential per incident fines from $2,500 to $10 with a cap of $500.

While some members of the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee wanted to see the proposal pushed to the legislative interim session for further discussion, a 6-5 vote advanced the bill to the full House for that body’s consideration.

Thursday testimony on the bill was limited to two opponents and two proponents following more extended public testimony that took place last Wednesday.

Thursday’s public comments included Dr. Jacob Gibson, a South Jordan family therapist, who said he regularly sees patients and their families who are dealing with the consequences of too-early exposure to explicit, adult material.

“One of the most difficult challenges I work with are the effects from pornography,” Gibson said. “Average age of first exposure, which is often accidental, is 10 to 11 years old. Anything we can do to help prevent that puts us in a proactive rather than a defensive position.

“Because (children) are not developmentally ready to handle that type of material, it leads to the problems of depression, anxiety and all the problems that go with that including and up to its most extreme form, suicide ideation and attempts,” Gibson said.

Opponents of the bill, which include representatives of retailer and manufacturer groups, roundly agreed about the harms inherent in children being exposed to adult internet content, but argue Pulsipher’s legislation is the wrong way to address the issue.

Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of tech industry-supported public policy advocacy group NetChoice, said the new rule would give parents a “false sense of security” with filtering software that could be easily defeated by tech-savvy youth.

“Utah will be sending out a message to parents, ‘Don’t worry the protections are on,’” Szabo said.

And opponents of the measure also raised issues about the bill’s potential infringements on constitutional protections.

In a series of tweets Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah noted concerns about First Amendment infringements as well as the possibility that device makers, in order to comply with the proposal, would be compelled to use “always on” device tracking tools.

“This bill imposes restrictions on free speech that are too broad to achieve this goal without encouraging companies to block protected content,” one ACLU tweet read.

Another said: “This bill would require location tracking features on all devices to ensure any device activated in Utah would trigger the filter to protect manufacturers from liability.”

Utah tech industry advocacy group Silicon Slopes Commons said it sees a chance for unintended outcomes for the business community.

“The unintended consequences of the proposed law would have a broadly negative impact on manufacturers, retailers and carriers,” the emailed statement shared ahead of the committee hearing says. “Many of those companies that sell these products already provide content filters, monitoring and management programs for parents to use at their discretion. Content filtering is a specialty of hundreds of third-party products as well.

“As written, the current bill sets a standard that would hamper, restrict and further make Utah companies liable for actions that are potentially out of their control.”