February 23, 2024


Washington
CNN
 — 

In the two-minute video, adult performer Cherie Deville stares into the camera and intones soberly to viewers, for the second time in a month, that policymakers are coming for their porn.

“Click the button below to contact your representatives before it is too late,” Deville pleads.

The call-to-action video, launching Wednesday in multiple states, comes from Pornhub, which last month withdrew from Utah over a new law that requires adult sites to verify their users’ ages and holds them liable for serving their content to minors. Now, as similar legislation is set to take effect next month in Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia, Pornhub is making a last-ditch effort to galvanize users there in opposition.

It’s unclear how much Pornhub expects to achieve, as the laws have already been passed and signed. A company spokesperson told CNN it’s “certainly not our goal” to shut down the site in the three states as it did in Utah but hinted at the possibility, saying that “if necessary, we will share next steps in the coming weeks.”

But the video campaign is only part of a broader unfolding strategy by one of the internet’s highest-profile distributors of adult material.

The video’s release coincides with a previously unreported effort by Pornhub — and its private equity owners, Ethical Capital Partners (ECP) — to convince the world’s largest tech companies to intervene in the wider debate over age restrictions for digital porn and social media.

In recent weeks, ECP has lobbied Apple, Google and Microsoft to jointly develop a technological standard that might turn a user’s electronic device into the proof of age necessary to access restricted online content, according to Solomon Friedman, a partner at ECP.

One possible version of the idea, Friedman told CNN, would be for the tech companies to securely store a person’s age information on a device and for the operating system to provide websites requesting age verification with a yes-or-no answer on the owner’s behalf — allowing sites to block underage users without ever handling anyone’s personal information.

“We are willing to commit whatever resources are required to work proactively with those companies, with other technical service providers and as well with government,” Friedman said.

Pornhub’s simultaneous appeals to users and to Big Tech highlight the challenging position the company now finds itself in amid a wave of state legislation. Under many of these laws, adult sites are required to implement “reasonable age verification methods” that could include users submitting pictures of their photo ID, facial scans or other information, either to third-party companies or to the sites themselves.

Minimum age requirements have emerged as a favored policy tool in statehouses across the country as lawmakers have increasingly become attuned to the potential mental health harms of unregulated social media use. But Pornhub, along with civil liberties and digital rights groups, have broadly warned of the potential pitfalls of age-verification rules.

Those risks can include the infringement of Americans’ rights to access legal speech under the First Amendment; the leakage of personal information belonging to underage as well as overage internet users; or the loss of online anonymity that safety experts say is crucial for shielding vulnerable individuals.

Pornhub’s outreach to Big Tech is intended to convince the companies whose operating systems power the world’s smartphones, tablets and computers that their technology is central to the future of online identity management and to draw their political might into a global policy battle that could reshape the internet for millions.

But it is far from clear the effort is succeeding. Friedman declined to say how, or even if, the companies have responded to Pornhub’s communications. Microsoft declined to comment for this story; Apple and Google didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Friedman characterized the discussions as being in “early stages,” though his other remarks implied the talks may be largely one-sided.

“We are willing and ready to work with them proactively to determine best solutions and to lend any technical expertise that we possibly can, whether it be implementation or pilot projects or assistance in any way,” Friedman told CNN. “We are hoping that this dialogue bears fruit and age verification will be addressed once and for all.”

The adult industry has famously led the charge on technological innovation before. Porn played a decisive role in the battle between the VHS and Betamax videotape platforms, facilitated the rise of online credit card transactions and helped promote streaming video technology writ large.

Now, Pornhub’s fight could prove to be a bellwether for the growing push to enforce age verification for social media. As with the battle over adult material, debates over how to keep children and teens away from social media have raised substantial questions about user privacy and how effective age restrictions may be when determined kids inevitably try to circumvent the rules.

The tech industry, for its part, has been making its own strides in digital identity services. In 2021, for example, Apple announced support for adding driver’s licenses from eight states to Apple Wallet. In December, Google announced it was beta testing a similar feature for Android.

Those services, however, are designed for in-person ID checks such as at travel checkpoints or liquor stores, technology experts said, and are not set up to perform age or identity verification remotely or virtually.

Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, a consumer advocacy group focused on children’s technology use, described calls for device-based age verification as an “intriguing idea” that might ease burdens on websites and internet users. But, he argued, there are less invasive ways of determining a website visitor’s age.

“It is our position that rather than requiring new, stringent forms of age verification, that we should start by having the platforms use the data they’re already collecting to do age estimation,” Golin said, pointing to how TikTok, for example, reportedly uses behavioral cues and activity algorithms to guess whether a user may be underage.

Any device-based approach to age verification would immediately run into issues in most households with children, where no device is ever solely used by one person or exclusively by adults, said India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization.

“You would have to assume that children and teens weren’t borrowing their parents’ phones,” McKinney said. “And that’s sharing on purpose. You don’t have to be too sophisticated to think about teens stealing their parent’s device to get around the age-gating.”

Meanwhile, entrusting large tech companies to be the custodians of even more personal information, and enabling them to be the effective arbiters of what internet users can see online, brings its own challenges, said Udbhav Tiwari, head of global product policy at Mozilla, maker of the popular Firefox web browser.

Device-based age verification, Tiwari said, could have “very serious privacy connotations, because you now have the largest tech companies in the world having your government ID and all the information present in them linked to individual devices. We’ve seen Twitter use phone numbers they collected for account security for targeting ads in the past, which led to them being subjected to FTC fines.”

Last year, Twitter agreed to pay $150 million to resolve those Federal Trade Commission allegations.

But Pornhub argues that the alternative is a world that’s even less safe, where users seeking age-restricted content may simply go to sites without age-gates or other checks.

“Giving your ID card every time you want to visit an adult platform is not the most effective solution,” Deville says in Wednesday’s video. “In fact, it will put children and your privacy at risk.”

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