Tennessee Republican Bill Forcing Internet Providers to Block All Porn by Default May Be Unworkable, Expert Says

Internet service providers operating in Tennessee should block pornographic material by default to protect minors, a state lawmaker has proposed.

Rep. James Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) is spearheading new efforts to make ISPs automatically activate a password-protected set of online parental controls in all internet service contracts after July 1 next year. The effort was first reported by local media outlet Fox 17.

HB 2294, also known as the "Safer Internet for Minors Act," was filed by Van Huss in the Tennessee General Assembly on Tuesday this week, records show.

The filing says controls should have no additional cost to consumers, but breaking the rules would leave companies in violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, which can result in fines.

The bill calls on ISPs to provide parental controls to "block access to a specific website or website category" and says controls should be turned on "by default under any internet access service contract entered into, amended, or renewed on or after July 1, 2021."

It goes on to say that online parental controls "must include a category specific to pornographic content and must block access to any pornographic website or digital content."

The document continues: "An internet service provider may include with online parental controls a feature to restrict the amount of time a consumer in this state may access the internet, age-specific websites or digital content categories, or any other feature that allows a parent or legal guardian to control and monitor internet use by a minor." The full text has been published online.

It remains unclear how the anti-porn law would be implemented with current technological infrastructure. Van Huss, whose term representing District 6 ends in November according to Ballotpedia, has been contacted for comment.

Paul Bernal, an Associate Professor in Information Technology and Media Law in the UEA School of Law, said the Tennessee proposal sounded familiar - and is unlikely to work. "This seems like a fair amount of attempts to regulate the internet - a mix of wishful thinking and woeful misunderstanding," Bernal said. "In the U.K. they've been trying to do something like this for a decade, and there's a good reason they've failed. It's easy to legislate, but all-but-impossible to implement."

The plans sparked debate when shared to Facebook by Fox 17.

"Have you seen Snapchat? Doing this isn't going to limit the availability of porn," one person noted. Referencing a type of software called a virtual private network that can circumvent website blocks by changing a user's virtual location, another person added, "Time to invest in VPN's folks."

In general, porn block attempts have proven costly or unworkable. Long-running plans to enact age verification for accessing the material in the U.K — also designed with the intention of protecting minors from viewing adult content — were scrapped last October after years of effort.

Preparation for the policy cost British taxpayers more than £2 million ($2.6m), The Guardian reported. The U.K. government's plan was to require anyone who wanted to view porn to verify they were over the age of 18 by using an official form of personal identification.

Free software can circumvent blocks on individual websites. Not all porn site owners would agree to play ball, and may be based in countries that do not regard local law. And social chat apps or websites that aren't specifically designed for porn often host adult material.

"There are so many unanswered questions," Bernal told Newsweek. "How do you determine what counts as pornography? How do you ensure that pornographers label themselves as such?

"How do you stop people finding countermeasures — from VPNs onwards? How do you deal with sites outside your jurisdiction? Do the Tennessee lawmakers expect ISPs to block all foreign sites just in case they contain pornography, or check every site to be sure?"

"The first would be censorship, the second mass surveillance, and both completely impractical," he continued. "There aren't easy answers to any of these questions - which is why this hasn't worked anywhere else and isn't likely to work here either. The desire to legislate is often based on what amounts to little more than anecdote and panic that's not even to start on the principles of free speech and the first amendment. I'd expect this law to be challenged pretty quickly."

File photo: Internet porn on laptop
File photo: Internet porn on laptop. Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) is spearheading efforts to make ISPs automatically activate online parental controls to obstruct porn viewing. iStock
Tennessee Republican Bill Forcing Internet Providers to Block All Porn by Default May Be Unworkable, Expert Says | News