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Texas wants to protect children from Internet porn. Is this new law going to be enough?

In our Reality Check stories, Star-Telegram journalists dig deeper into questions over facts, consequences and accountability. Read more. Story idea? RealityCheck@star-telegram.com.

The decision by the adult content site PornHub on Thursday to cut off access to users in Texas in response to the state’s age verification law garnered praise by supporters, who claimed it represented a win for those who aim to protect children.

In an emailed statement, Republican state Rep. Matt Shaheen of Plano pointed to the passage of similar laws in Europe and elsewhere in the world, calling age verification “a common sense solution to protect little children.”

Shaheen, whose district covers western Collin County, called Internet porn companies “evil” and said they intend to expose children to adult content, saying “they are to be condemned.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told The Texas Tribune that if companies like PornHub “don’t want to comply, good riddance.”

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that Texas’ age verification law is constitutional.

The Free Speech Coalition, the adult entertainment trade association that was a plaintiff in that lawsuit against the Attorney General’s Office, has argued that the law violates Supreme Court precedent set decades ago. The high court ruled in 2004 that the age verification requirement in the 1998 Child Online Protection Act was unconstitutional.

Now that the Texas law has gone into effect, how confident can Texas parents be that it will protect their children?

Do age verification laws protect children from Internet porn?

The U.N. children’s agency has warned of the harmful effects of pornographic content on children, reporting that exposure at an early age “may lead to poor mental health, sexism and objectification, sexual violence, and other negative outcomes.”

After disabling its website, PornHub replaced its homepage with a statement calling the law “ineffective, haphazard, and dangerous.”

The Free Speech Coalition has a similar stance on state age verification laws, calling them unconstitutional and easily circumvented by technology like Virtual Private Networks, which can tell a website that a user’s Internet connection is elsewhere in the world.

Searches for VPN providers spiked in Texas after PornHub blocked its site, according to CNN.

This has happened in every state that has passed age verification laws, according to Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics program at the University of Santa Clara’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

“There are technical means to go around the law, there are these other ways for kids to come across porn, so it doesn’t really address the issue,” she said in a phone interview.

And VPNs are not the only alternative means of accessing pornographic content on the Internet, Raicu said, pointing to examples of seemingly innocuous posts on social media sites like YouTube and Facebook that can inadvertently take a user to a pornographic site.

Furthermore, many pornographic sites are not based in the United States, where Texas law does not apply.

“That is the problem with the Internet,” Raicu said. “And then the question is, what do we do? You can’t just throw up your hands, and I don’t think we have a really good answer.”

One answer lies not in the hands of legislatures, but in those of parents, she said, recommending that parents include the harmful effects of pornography in their talks of birds and bees with their children.

In a post on X, Johns Hopkins cryptology professor Matthew Green noted “some confusing stuff” about the nuts and bolts of age verification in the Texas law.

The fact that the Texas law requires pornographic websites to erase a user’s identifying information, for example, could lead to serious cybersecurity issues.

“That seems highly unworkable for any age-verification services, which presumably have to retain some information (if only to contact you about security breaches, as required by some states’ laws.),” Green wrote.

Raicu said that while the internet has been compared to the Wild West in terms of its intractable nature with respect to the law, the analogy ultimately does not hold up.

“It’s interesting because the non-digital Wild West got tamed, but the digital world has its own sort of nature and ecosystem, and it’s different than the non-digital ones,” she said. “So you can’t really translate things directly from one to the other is what we’re finding.”

What other states have age verification laws for Internet porn?

Several states followed Louisiana’s example after it became the first to pass an age verification law in 2022. Currently 17 states have passed or introduced similar legislation, according to the demographics and population data site World Population Review.

Texas became the eighth state in which PornHub blocked access following the passage of age verification laws. The other states include Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Utah and Virginia, USA Today reported.

Raicu said it is too soon to tell whether or not age verification laws in those states have succeeded in protecting children from harmful content online, but it is likely that they will not last.

“It looks like states are trying to pass laws that won’t be effective and most likely won’t be allowed to stand for constitutional reasons,” she said.