Why Is Everyone In Utah Talking About Pornhub?

Pornhub blocks Utah web traffic, Utahns search for a workaround and an adult film industry group sues Utah after the State’s new age restriction law goes into effect

On May 3, 2023, Utah’s new age verification law went into effect and Utahns visiting Pornhub found they had lost access to the website. Rather than the adult website’s homepage, they were greeted by a message explaining why Pornhub has blocked Utah residents from accessing its content. And… many, many Utahns responded by searching for an immediate workaround to the ban.

PR and marketing service Culture Currents Institute looked at Google Trend data immediately following Pornhub’s ban on Utah users, and it found that Utah’s Google search volume for “VPN” saw a dramatic rise. Virtual Private Networks (VPN) can disguise the users’ location from a website or network and trick it into thinking the user is accessing from somewhere else—in this case, not Utah. 

If you’ve found yourself asking, “If getting around Pornhub’s Utah blackout is as easy as subscribing to a VPN, what is to stop people from using a VPN to get around online age verification all together?” you would not be the first. In fact, the relatively simple circumvention of the age verification requirement is one of the problems raised by critics of the new law, and more websites could follow Pornhub’s example—block Utahns from accessing their sites rather than comply with the new law. 

Where did this law come from? 

This past legislative session, the Utah State Legislature passed S.B. 287, “Online Pornography Viewing Age Requirements.” The law went into effect May 3, 2023, requiring websites with “a substantial portion of material that may be harmful to minors” to verify the age of their users, and makes them legally liable if they don’t. 

Ostensibly, the purpose of S.B. 287 is to prevent minors from consuming material that the State of Utah deems harmful to minors, specifically. As such, The law applies to sites with more than 33% of their content falling under the potentially “harmful to minors” umbrella as a way to prevent people under 18 years old from viewing those sites. 

Which materials are harmful to minors, as defined by Utah law?

  • Material that the “average person, applying contemporary community standards,” would find is designed to appeal to “the prurient interest”
  • Material that depicts nudity, sexual acts, etc. “in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors”

That definition has already raised the potential for thorny legal predicaments following its application toward banning books from Utah school libraries

When it comes to verifying users’ ages, websites have a few options for methods of verification, as detailed by the law. It’s not as easy as having users fill out a birthdate:

  • A digitized information card 
  • An independent, third-party age verification service that checks the users’ information against a “commercially available database”
  • Any method that relies on checking user info against commercially available “public or private transactional data”

Critics of the law have pointed out that the definitions and prescribed methods for age verification are vague and could infringe on users’ privacy and put the security of their private information at risk. Alison Boden, Executive Director of The Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the trade group for the adult entertainment industry, says in an open letter to the sponsor of S.B. 287, “The law is so vague—and the requirements for compliance so contradictory—I cannot figure out how FSC members can follow this law.” The FSC has also set up a site where its members can redirect Utah users, if they, like Pornhub, decide to block Utah web traffic. So, more Utah-specific online blackouts could be coming. 

Why did Pornhub block Utah?

For Utahns trying to access Pornhub, a video message from Cherie DeVille, a member of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, replaces the usual home page. DeVille explains, “While safety and compliance are at the forefront of our mission, giving your ID card every time you want to visit an adult platform is not the most effective solution for protecting our users and, in fact, will put children and your privacy at risk.” And, it seems like users would have to verify their age every time they want to use the site because the new law also forbids sites like Pornhub from retaining personal info acquired through age verification.

Future online blackouts might not be limited to sites with “adult” content. Another new Utah law, S.B. 152, requires that social media platforms both verify the age of all users and get parental consent before allowing access to minors. This law, too, could mean that social media sites will need age-verification systems that use government IDs.

Unlike other states who have passed similar age verification laws, critics say Utah lacks a form of digitized ID, despite it being mentioned in the law as a potential method of age verification. While the State of Utah has a Mobile ID app that Utahns have the option to opt into, the electronic ID is set up to use in-person at some credit unions, the Salt Lake International Airport and some DABS Liquor Stores, but Utah’s digital ID program does not appear to be equipped for online age verification at the moment. In a message to its members, FSC explains, “Unfortunately, the Utah legislation does not provide a straightforward way to comply…And the other compliance methods required by the legislation don’t align with the current offerings from most if not all AVS (age verification service) providers.”

Pornhub and FSC are pushing for device-based verification and restrictions, rather than sweeping age verifications. “In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that age-verification requirements like the one instituted in Utah are unconstitutional so long as other less intrusive methods—such as device-level internet filters—are available,” says FSC on its website. The FSC points to a Pew Research study that shows those digital tools are underutilized by parents, even though they are widely available. The study found that only 39% of parents report using parental controls for blocking, filtering or monitoring their teen’s online activities. 

“We believe that the best and most effective solution for protecting children and adults alike is to identify users by their device and allow access to age-restricted materials and websites based on that identification,” says Pornhub’s message to Utah users. “Until a real solution is offered, we have made the difficult decision to completely disable access to our website in Utah.”

Meanwhile…The adult film industry sues Utah

FSC has outlined the compliance issues it has with Utah’s new age verification law, but, in the lawsuit they filed against the State, the FSC focuses first on the First Amendment. “The Utah law restricts adults’ access to legal speech and violates decades of Supreme Court precedent,” says Boden. “We are fighting not only for the rights of our members and the larger adult entertainment community but for the right of all Americans to access constitutionally-protected expression in the privacy of their own home.”

The legal complaint against Utah says the law violates the First Amendment in a number of ways:

  • Imposing a content-based restriction on protected speech, which, the complaint argues, doesn’t actually accomplish its stated purpose of protecting minors who can easily obtain “harmful materials” in other ways
  • Compelling providers of online content to place an age-verification content wall over their entire websites unconstitutionally labels them as “adult businesses” 
  • Requiring an approval method as a condition to providing protected expression is a prior restraint on speech

The filing seeks to have the courts pause any enforcement of the law while the plaintiffs continue legal proceedings to have the law deemed unconstitutional.

“We wrote to Utah during the legislative process raising these issues and asking for a dialogue around workable solutions, but were ignored,” says Boden. “Adult websites don’t want children accessing their content any more than the State of Utah does. But the solutions put forward in S.B. 287 put an unreasonable burden on free expression that we believe are meant to have a chilling effect for all Utahns.”

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Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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