Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, discusses a bill she sponsored requiring age verification to visit pornography websites while Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat who added an amendment prohibiting children under 14 from having social media accounts, listens during a House floor session Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, discusses a bill she sponsored requiring age verification to visit pornography websites while Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat who added an amendment prohibiting children under 14 from having social media accounts, listens during a House floor session Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

House passes bill banning kids under 14 from social media, requiring age verification for porn sites

Key provisions of proposal comes from legislators at opposite ends of the political spectrum

A bill banning children under 14 from social media accounts and requiring people to verify they are at least 18 years old before viewing pornography online passed the state House on Friday by a 33-6 vote.

The two main provisions are by two legislators at opposite ends of the House’s political scale, resulting in some unorthodox alliances and votes cast when amendments to the bill were debated Wednesday evening. Those voting against the bill on Friday also expressed concerns about privacy to individuals required to supply copies of official IDs — such as scans of driver’s licenses — to websites and whether the bill can survive constitutional challenges.

Legislation for both the child social media ban and age verification for pornographic websites has been signed into law or is pending in a multitude of other states — and facing court challenges in many instances as well. Meanwhile, some porn sites have cut off access to certain states in response to laws enacted.

Some House members said Friday while they have reservations about the bill they passed, especially with the significant changes made on the floor, they hope the Senate will fine-tune the proposal. However, there are only three weeks left in the session with major items such as the budget and a thicket of education issues to resolve.

“The bill is not complete in its process, and the concerns I’ve expressed and others have expressed will be addressed later on,” House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, an Anchorage Republican, told his colleagues.

Juneau’s two Democratic representatives were split on Friday vote on the bill, with Rep. Andi Story voting in favor and Rep. Sara Hannan opposed. Hannan, after the floor session, said she shared the civil liberties concerns expressed by other legislators on the floor.

Originally a bill to “prohibit pornography to minors”

House Bill 254 by Rep. Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, originally contained only the requirement that people in Alaska verify they are at least 18 years old using a “commercially reasonable age verification method” to access websites where more than one-third of the total content is pornographic material.

“When I found out how pervasive pornography is in exploiting children, and in abuse and also trafficking, I decided that I wanted to at least restrict the access to only adults,” she said during floor debate Friday. “And so this bill requires an age verification for porn sites. And this is sites that have…the really, really illicit content.”

A vote board in the House chambers shows overwhelming support Friday for a bill requiring age limits for pornographic websites and banning people under 14 from having social media accounts. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A vote board in the House chambers shows overwhelming support Friday for a bill requiring age limits for pornographic websites and banning people under 14 from having social media accounts. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Violations are subject to civil penalties of $10,000 a day, plus an additional $250,000 penalty if a minor has accessed pornographic material at the site. The requirement does not include news or “public interest” content. Search engines and internet service providers are also exempt if they are not creating or exclusively hosting such content.

Similar bills have passed in at least eight other states, with court challenges to them on free speech grounds having mixed results.

Among the legislators expressing concern about the verification requirements and ultimately voting against the bill was Rep. Ashley Carrick, a Fairbanks Democrat, who said the requirement could apply to a wide variety of websites such as X (formerly known as Twitter), Netflix and Facebook that have large amounts of content that could be classified as explicit. She also noted Alaska’s constitution has one of strongest privacy clauses in the U.S. and so “it probably would be ruled unconstitutional.”

Vance said people don’t necessarily need to submit driver’s licenses or other IDs, since the bill also allows “another method that relies on public or private transactional data.” She also noted companies hosting such sites aren’t allowed to retain the verification material.

That didn’t reassure Rep. Genevieve Mina, an Anchorage Democrat, who said there are inherent risks transmitting personal identification data over the internet.

“I am very concerned about privacy for all individuals who might have to comply with this type of commercial age verification technology,” she said. “There’s a concept called data minimization where if you want to protect people and their data you want to reduce the amount of data that’s collected by private companies, especially in risk of data breaches. Data breaches happen all the time, it happens to companies all the time and it also happens to our government.”

Adding a social media ban for kids

The bill took a sharp policy and political turn on Wednesday night when Rep. Andrew Gray, an Anchorage Democrat, successfully added the amendment prohibiting children under 14 from having social media accounts, and requiring teens ages 14 and 15 to obtain parental consent.

A primary motive for the amendment, Gray said, is the age verification requirement will be ineffective since people — including youths — will simply use VPNs (virtual private networks) to simulate being a web user from a state or country without such requirements to access pornographic sites. He said a study by a California university showed 41% of middle school students currently use a VPN to browse the internet.

“If this underlying bill passes…I guarantee you that the whole state of Alaska will suddenly be downloading VPNs,” he said.

The social media ban, Gray emphasized, is based on a bill drafted and signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, offering praise to a Republican governor who is the polar opposite of the Alaska lawmaker on a wide range of issues. That led to the oddity of some other Democrats also offering praise (“I’m grateful to Gov. Ron DeSantis for nationally taking the lead on this,” remarked Anchorage Rep. Jennie Armstrong), while Vance and some Republicans expressed reservations about the amendment not getting proper vetting before being put to a floor vote.

“That Florida bill is 20 pages long,” Vance said. “It’s very detailed. This amendment is three. There was a similar bill in Arkansas that was passed, but it has been held up in the courts since August of 2023. There’s been others that have been tossed out by the courts and found unconstitutional. So the idea may be merited. But the details of the bill have a great importance. And we’re not here to pass ideas. We’re here to pass good laws. So I think this needs to be further developed.”

Gray, in an interview Thursday, said there was no political motive to the amendment such as making the bill more vulnerable to a court challenge or getting Republicans on record voting against a social media ban for kids.

“I would say that 90% of the time I am on the other end of the spectrum of Gov. Ron DeSantis, but on this particular issue, I am in alignment,” he said. “I believe with all of my heart that social media has been harmful to our youth. And I believe restricting youth access to social media is in their best interest. And so I also recognize that I am working within a Republican House. The House majority is dominated by Republicans, some of whom are very conservative. If I want to pass my policy, if I want to achieve my policy goals, I have to do so in a way that will appeal to conservative Republicans.”

The amendment passed by 27-11 vote with a mixture of majority and minority caucus members on both sides, although Saddler as the majority and House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, were among those in opposition. Two members of the majority were excused from Wednesday’s session.

Gray also successfully added an amendment, which passed by a 21-17 vote, that would reimburse parents who apply up to $100 a year for parental control software, with the amount adjusted annually for inflation. He said research by his staff shows high-quality filtering software is expensive enough to possibly pose a hardship to low-income families.

In her overview as sponsor of the bill before Friday’s floor vote, Vance acknowledged the bill now goes beyond her original intent and has unanswered questions, but said she continues to support it and will work toward resolving potential problems.

“While it may not be perfect at this moment this is our process and I’m going to honor the will of the House, and I’m going to continue to do work,” she said. “I’m committed that the legislation that we pass is constitutionally and legally sound.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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