Rhode Island Backs Off Ridiculous Plan to Block Porn, Charge $20 to Bypass Filters

The Act is the pet project of an anti-porn crusader known as Chris Sevier, best known for trying to marry his computer.

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Mar 29 2018, 2:00pm

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Rhode Island lawmakers are retreating from a uniformly-derided piece of legislation that would have forced internet users to pay a $20 fee per device just to watch porn.

As we noted last month, Rhode Island State Senator Frank Ciccone pushed the proposal, which is based on draft legislation known as the Human Trafficking Protection Act. The originating proposal has been widely and repeatedly maligned by digital rights groups like the EFF for infringing upon free speech and for being technically ridiculous to actually implement.

Under the proposed law, ISPs would be required to filter all pornography or face a $500 per infraction fine. Users who wanted to access pornography would then been subject to a $20 per device “digital access fee” if they wanted to access pornography.

To pay the fee, users would have to submit their porn access request in writing, acknowledging they’d read a “warning regarding the potential dangers” of pornography.

Critics have pointed out that implementation of such a system would not only raise free speech and privacy concerns, but would be technically impractical if not impossible to adopt. ISPs would also have to foot the added support costs of handling complaints about the filters, costs that would then inevitably be forwarded on to consumers.

Internet filters are widely derided for not only being difficult and expensive to implement, but ineffective, since tech-savvy users can usually find ways to bypass the filters. Such filters also tend to cause collateral damage as unrelated websites get inadvertently blacklisted.

The Act doesn’t actually have much to do with Human Trafficking. It’s the pet project of an anti-porn crusader known as Chris Sevier. Sevier, who uses a rotating crop of different names, was best known for trying to marry his computer to protest same sex marriages. Sevier also sued Apple in 2013, claiming the Cuppertino-giant was responsible for his past porn addiction.

Sevier has also faced past charges for stalking and harassing both country star John Rich and a 17-year-old girl. Despite his controversial history, Sevier’s anti-porn campaign has somehow managed to convince at least eighteen different states to push more than two-dozen variations of the maligned proposal over the last few years.

While none of these proposals have managed to pass so far, Sevier’s success at repeatedly getting states to seriously consider patently terrible and unworkable legislation has dumbfounded digital rights activists and political reporters alike.

Last month, Ciccone told Motherboard that his Rhode Island incarnation of the bill wouldn’t actually require a $20 porn access fee, but the bill itself appeared to contradict that claim.

Now Ciccone is retreating from the bill entirely after kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart sent a cease and desist letter complaining that her name was being used without her permission to help sell the legislation, both on the effort’s website and in various sales pitches to state lawmakers.

"Elizabeth is not connected with this organization," a representative for Smart tells the Associated Press. "There was absolutely no authorization to use her name."

As of this writing, Smart’s name remains prominently attached to the effort’s website.

“In light of recent nationwide reporting about the dubious origins of this bill, I have requested that the legislation be withdrawn from today’s Judiciary Committee hearing,” Ciccone said in a statement released this week.

“Also, after learning that Elizabeth Smart was in no way involved with this legislation, and the fact that 18 other state legislatures have received the same erroneous information leading to similar bills being sponsored across the country, I am withdrawing this legislation from the 2018 Senate session,” Ciccone added.

Given that Sevier’s been pushing this widely-criticized legislation for the better part of the last few years, it likely would have taken Ciccone or a staffer all of ten minutes-worth of internet research to discern that the origins of the proposal were sketchy at best.

Rhode Island’s retreat from this controversial legislation is just the latest indication that states are glacially getting wise to Sevier’s self-promotional efforts.

So far in 2018, similar proposals based on Sevier’s Human Trafficking Protection Act have already died in committee in Mississippi and Virginia. New Mexico lawmakers have also pulled their own variant after critics highlighted the absurdity of the law and the colorful history of the man pushing it.