By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — Texas has become the seventh state to enact a law requiring age verification for viewing pornography online.
On June 12, Governor Greg Abbott signed off on HB 1181, which imposes civil penalties on entities that permit those under age 18 to access pornographic material through the internet or social media platforms. The new law will take effect Sept. 1.
Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Utah and Virginia have passed similar measures in recent months.
Texas’ law mandates “reasonable age verification methods” that require users to provide some form of digital identification, government-issued identification or transactional data (such as information regarding a mortgage, employment or education) before accessing sexually explicit content online.
In addition, commercial entities subject to the new law must include prominent health warnings about sexually explicit material, noting that “pornography is potentially biologically addictive”; associated with low self-esteem, emotional and mental disorders; and increases demand for prostitution and child exploitation. Providers of such material are also required to post the telephone number for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), enacted by Congress in 2000, prohibits children’s access to obscene or harmful content on the internet. However, the law is rarely enforced.
Critics of age verification laws claim that such statutes infringe on free speech and privacy. In response to Utah’s adoption of an age verification law, Pornhub and other adult sites owned by parent company MindGeek blocked access by Utah users, issuing calls to verify users by device, rather than identity.
On June 6, four bishops who chair committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to Congress encouraging members to address the issue of protecting children online.
Signing the three-page document were Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, chairman of the Committee on Protection of Children and Young People; Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Auxiliary Bishop Robert P. Reed of Boston, chairman of the Committee on Communications; and Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, and chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
“As pastors, we have seen the destructive effects of the reprehensible offenses of child exploitation firsthand,” they wrote. “And as leaders of an institution that, for many years, failed to meet its responsibility to protect all children, we know all too well the consequences of a culture that fails to give adequate attention to the problem of child sexual exploitation.”
The bishops said the long-standing issue of child exploitation has “increased exponentially” in recent years “in large part due to the Internet and mobile technology.”
They noted that along with the problem of child pornography, “children are also exploited simply because the internet contains a multitude of materials that are not intended for child consumption but are nevertheless easily available.”
“The lack of adequate safeguards on many internet websites makes this early exposure to sexual and violent materials far too common,” said the bishops, who advised lawmakers to uphold respect for life and human dignity, as well as family and community, in their efforts to safeguard children.
Three days after the joint statement, the U.S. bishops encouraged Catholics to join them in asking Congress to protect children online, both from viewing pornography and from becoming victims of child pornography and exploitation.
In a June 9 action alert, the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development said that “members of both parties in Congress are putting forward various pieces of legislation that would address and help prevent the destructive effects of online child exploitation,” and the voice of Catholics “is needed to urge Congress to use their authority to protect children and vulnerable people online.”