from the good-luck-with-that dept
Rhode Island lawmakers are proposing a new law (pdf) that would force ISPs to filter pornography and other “patently offensive material.” It would then force state residents interested in viewing porn to pony up a one-time $20 “digital access fee” to whitelist the internet’s naughty bits for each internet-connected device in the home, the money purportedly going toward helping combat human trafficking. ISPs would be required to build entire new support systems (on their dime) to help combat porn, and would face fines of $500 for each instance of offensive content that ISPs failed to censor.
The bill is worded vaguely enough to suggest that hardware vendors could also be held liable if they failed to help censor said “patently offensive” material:
“If a person who manufacturers, sells, offers for sale, leases, or distributes a product that makes content accessible on the Internet is unresponsive to a report of sexual content or patently offensive material that has breached the filter required by this section, the attorney general or a consumer may file a civil suit. The attorney general or a consumer may seek damages of up to five hundred dollars ($500) for each piece of content that was reported but not subsequently blocked. The prevailing party in the civil action may seek attorneys’ fees.”
Upon initial inspection, this awful proposal would just appear to be garden-variety vanilla stupid. It’s technically impossible, annoyingly expensive, unlikely to ever pass, and (like most filter programs) would likely only cause collateral damage to the access of legitimate content. But the proposal is actually just one of more than a dozen similar proposals winding their way through numerous state legislatures. All of these bills follow the same, absurd playbook, and all falsely try to use child trafficking as a bogus straw man to justify censorship.
And they’re all being spearheaded by a man named Chris Sevier, whose checkered history suggests he shouldn’t be writing love notes on cocktail napkins, much less helping craft state-level legislation:
“Chris Sevier, 40, who sometimes goes by Mark Sevier in court and Chris Severe in communications with state legislators, has a contentious and often intentionally provocative relationship with the American court system that is news to at least some of the bill?s co-sponsors. He once famously tried to legally marry his computer to protest same-sex marriage, and was charged with stalking and harassing both country star John Rich and a 17-year-old girl.”
Lovely. Sevier’s war on porn, and his effort to obfuscate his real agenda by professing to be combating human trafficking, isn’t new. Sevier has also filed suit against Apple in the past for the company’s failure to implement more robust porn filters. Said lawsuit was jam-packed with spelling and other errors, and he claimed that Apple’s failure to police porn resulted him in seeing “pornographic images that appealed to his biological sensibilities as a male and lead to an unwanted addiction with adverse consequences.”
Somehow, Sevier has had some notable success convincing lawmakers to push their own versions of the same draft legislation. We’ve covered previous iterations of these efforts, which all use human trafficking as a bogeyman to justify ham-fisted and technologically unworkable censorship efforts. South Carolina Senator Bill Chumley pushed one-such incarnation of this effort in late 2016. We’ve also covered similar efforts in Virginia. Time and time again, the lawmakers backing these proposals fail utterly in explaining how their legislation actually harms human trafficking in any material way.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation last week did a good job highlighting the scope of this absurdity, noting that more than fifteen states are now pushing some flavor of the ?Human Trafficking Prevention Act? (HTPA). Again, none of the bills actually do anything to stop human trafficking, but do appear to enjoy using the subject to obfuscate the problems inherent in hysterical puritanical hyperventilation and censorship. And as the EFF notes, the fact that these proposals are logistically unworkable doesn’t appear to bother their backers in the slightest:
“The bill would force the companies we rely upon for open access to the Internet to create a massive, easily abused censorship apparatus. Tech companies would be required to operate call centers or online reporting centers to monitor complaints about which sites should or should not be filtered. The technical requirements for this kind of aggressive platform censorship at scale are simply unworkable. If the attempts of social media sites to censor pornographic images are any indication, we cannot count on algorithms to distinguish, for example, nude art from medical information from pornography. Facing risk of legal liability, companies would likely over-censor and sweep up legal content in their censorship net.
Numerous states (like New Mexico) have backed off their own proposals after the EFF raised the alarm, but it remains stunning just how much traction these efforts have seen despite being technologically impossible, hugely expensive, utterly disingenuous, and the intellectual and legislative equivalent of some random internet troll’s epic brain fart.