Ahead of New Age Verification Law, Pornhub Blocks Access in Virginia

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

By Meghan McIntire, Virginia Mercury

June 30, 2023

by Meghan McIntyre, Virginia Mercury

Virginians will no longer be able to access Pornhub, one of the internet’s most popular pornography websites, after the company disabled access to the site in the commonwealth in response to a new law going into effect this Saturday. 

The law requires pornography websites to use age verification technology to more stringently determine whether a person is 18 or older to gain access to the site. The legislation passed the General Assembly on a nearly unanimous vote this March. Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, the patron of the bill, told the Mercury this March his legislation aims to address the “epidemic” of childhood exposure to pornography.

Under the law, websites must verify users’ age and identity but can select the specific method of verification, such as uploading copies of government-issued identification or other unspecified commercial technology. 

Bill to require additional proof of age for porn sites in Virginia heads to Youngkin’s desk

However, Pornhub, in a message posted to its site Thursday, is arguing the law is not the most effective solution for protecting people visiting its site, and puts children and user privacy at risk. 

“Until a real solution is offered, we have made the difficult decision to completely disable access to our website in Virginia,” wrote Pornhub. 

Virginia now joins Utah, which has a similar age verification law, as states where Pornhub has blocked residents’ access to content due to legislation.  

In Virginia, the law applies to any website where 33.3% or more of the content is “material harmful to minors,” such as websites exclusively containing pornography. Social media sites like Twitter and Reddit, which allow adult content on their platforms but are not predominantly made up of adult content, would not be subject to the law. 

In Virginia, the law will allow people to sue pornographic websites that don’t use proper age and identity verification methods “for damages resulting from a minor’s access to such material.” 

However, Beth Waller, attorney and chair of the cybersecurity and data privacy practice at Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black law firm, said technology limitations could make it difficult for pornography websites to follow the requirements. She also questioned Virginia’s ability to enforce the law in the first place. 

Waller said Louisiana, which has a similar law, allows adult content websites to access the state’s central driver’s license online database to verify age and identity. Virginia, she said, doesn’t have a similar system. 

That means websites will have to use third-party verification methods from other companies that don’t have access to a central state database, she said, raising questions about how identification will be processed and verified.

“It’s not like walking into a bar where somebody can take the ID and use an ID reader to see if it’s valid,” Waller said. 

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office did not respond to multiple requests from the Mercury for information about how officials plan to enforce the new law. 

Free Speech Coalition Executive Director Alison Boden said the laws in Louisiana and Utah haven’t been enforced despite going into effect months ago.

“Because the laws are so poorly written, it’s impossible to know whether a site could be held liable for violating the law even when it’s made a good-faith effort to comply,” she said. “Website owners certainly worry that even though they’re following the law as they understand it, they could still end up being sued because young people understand technology like VPNs much better than politicians do.”

VPNs, or virtual private networks, are encryption methods that allow easy access to websites regardless of what state they live in.

Uploading personal information through non-state verification methods also runs the risk of the information being exposed in a cybersecurity data breach, said Waller. 

“The intention behind the law is good,” Waller said. However, she added, “I do think that anyone who wants to bypass a law like that, they are properly motivated and tech savvy and will find a way to do so.”

The message shown on Pornhub.com as of June 29:

“Dear user,

As you may know, your elected officials in Virginia are requiring us to verify your age before allowing you access to our website. 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.

In addition, mandating age verification without proper enforcement gives platforms the opportunity to choose whether or not to comply. As we’ve seen in other states, this just drives traffic to sites with far fewer safety measures in place. Very few sites are able to compare to the robust Trust and Safety measures we currently have in place. To protect children and user privacy, any legislation must be enforced against all platforms offering adult content.

The safety of our users is one of our biggest concerns. 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. Until a real solution is offered, we have made the difficult decision to completely disable access to our website in Virginia.

Please contact your representatives before it is too late and demand device-based verification solutions that make the internet safer while also respecting your privacy.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: [email protected]. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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