The People Working on Rhode Island's Porn-Blocking Bill Don't Even Agree on What it Does

The bill would block "patently offensive material" from consumers, unless they paid a $20 fee.

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Mar 8 2018, 4:08pm

Image: Pornhub/Shutterstock 

The news that two Rhode Island senators have proposed a bill that would require internet service providers to block people from accessing porn online unless they pay a $20 fee has understandably left people with a lot of questions. Unfortunately, the people behind the bill don’t seem to be able to answer them.

The bill’s mastermind, a man on a national crusade against internet porn named Chris Severe, frames it as a universal block designed to prevent everyone from seeing the “unprotected stimuli” that is porn. The office of one of the bill’s sponsors, state Sen. Frank Ciccone, says it will be an opt-in parental block.

“It does NOT require consumers to pay $20 to access porn,” a spokesperson for Sen. Ciccone told me in an email. “Consumers would have to request that the blocking service be imposed. The fee referenced in the bill would only apply if a consumer who had requested block later asks that the block be removed. Language will need to be tightened to make that clear.”

Severe (who sometimes uses the name “Mark Sevier” or combinations of these names), meanwhile, has framed it as a moral issue. Severe is a former lawyer who once tried to marry his laptop and sued Apple for getting him addicted to porn. He is the driving force behind the 2017 “Human Trafficking Prevention Act,” a nationwide effort to install “obscenity blockers” on devices and through internet service providers, and has pushed similar bills to the Rhode Island legislation in other states as well.

“We’re not against sex, sex is great, God made sex,” Severe told me in a phone conversation. “But sex is not getting off to pixelated screens or prostitutes. That’s not how we’re designed, that’s not good for us.”

Severe said that his intention with the bill is to have this block turned on by default. Selling a computer without obscenity blockers is like selling a car without seatbelts, he said. “Basically the question is, is the product dangerous and defective in their current condition? The answer is yes, absolutely,” Severe said.

The bill, introduced on March 1, is vague. It would require the blocking of sexual content and “patently offensive material.” It doesn’t specify what, exactly, counts as “offensive,” or who is the arbiter of what is sexually explicit and what isn’t.

According to the bill, to get the block removed, one would have to make a request in writing, present identification that proves they are over 18 years of age, fork over $20, and receive a “written warning regarding the potential danger of deactivating the digital blocking capability.” The bill is not clear about whether ISPs, retailers, or hardware manufacturers will collect the fee, but it says that the funds collected from fees will then submit it to the state who will use it to “fund the operations of the Council on Human Trafficking.”

If something is blocked online that isn’t actually sexually explicit, the owner of the content can request to get it unblocked, which could take up to five days. The bill is not specific about whether the blocks would have to be implemented by ISPs or hardware manufacturers.

If a manufacturer of an internet-connected product isn’t responsive to reports of explicit content, the attorney general or consumer can seek damages of up to $500 per piece of content that was reported but not blocked, the bill states.

Severe says he is planning to meet with the Rhode Island legislators next week to “perfect” the bill. “Here’s the thing, sometimes states start with putting a spin on it... I’ve got to read the Rhode Island bill, I’m working on so many versions it’s ridiculous,” he said, referring to all the bills he’s working on in other states.

According to the Human Trafficking Protection Act website, versions of this bill have been introduced in most states. Attorneys for the ACLU have called it "an unconstitutional cash grab for an internet filter” and “definitely an attempt to infringe on people’s rights.” Last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation raised the alarm that these bill are dangerous for free speech.

In late February 2018, the EFF again wrote to states’ House representatives to oppose the bill, stating that it would not only unconstitutionally infringe on free speech rights, but also the “right to privately speak and listen on the Internet without reporting that activity to government officials,” and the rights of property owners to use their devices as they see fit.

Severe, obviously, disagrees: “It’s not harmless speech, it’s unprotected stimuli... We’re not going to prohibit it or get rid of anything, we’ll just say it’s blocked by default.”