Rhode Island proposes $20 porn tax

The State legislature in Rhode Island is proposing to introduce a one-off $20 for all internet users in the state who wish to view ‘sexual content’ and intent to require ISPs to block access for those who don’t pay up.

The new proposal was introduced yesterday by Democratic State Senators Frank Ciccone and Hanna Gallo. Given the rather anonymous title ‘An Act Relating to Public Utilities and Carriers – Internet Digital Blocking Act’, the new law would require ISPs to be able to block anything that is deemed to be of a sexual nature under the state statute.

What Rhode Island wants to block

This definition considers sexual content to be anything that depicts or describes sexual intercourse or masturbation. However, the new law also proposes extending the blocks to anything considered to be ‘offensive’.

This vague term, more commonly used in laws of authoritarian regimes or theocracies would include any material that is “so offensive on its face as to affront current standards of decency.” How Rhode Island plans to define this term in practice remains to be seen.

Content that facilitated prostitution and human trafficking would also be blocked as would any child pornography or revenge pornography. Presumably, this content would not be unlocked with the payment of the one-off fee.

Under the proposed law, all of this content would be automatically blocked and users could only get it unblocked by paying the fee to their ISP. ISPs would not get to keep the money, however. Instead, it would be handed over to the State who would then use it to combat human trafficking.

While human trafficking is undoubtedly a dreadful crime and one which deserves more resources, quite why the State Senators think that porn users should have to pay a tax to access perfectly legal online content is unclear.

A seriously flawed justification

When questioned about the proposals by the Arstechnica website, Senator Frank Ciccone claimed that the proposal was the same as legislation on the statute book in no fewer than 44 other states and the suggested fee was consistent with those states too.

This statement is incorrect and as Arstechnica points out in their article, the web link that Ciccone used to support his statement only provides links to pending legislation in a handful of states.

There have been Bill proposals in other states to restrict access to some forms of sexual content, but none are as sweeping as the proposal in Rhode Island.

Proposed legislation in Ohio is aimed at sexual images taken without a person’s consent, in Arizona, it is aimed at child pornography and other illegal content, and in Alabama targets only ‘patently offensive’ sexual content rather than all pornographic content.

Not only does the Rhode Island proposal appear to be groundbreaking, albeit perhaps unintentionally so, it is also likely to be illegal. The First Amendment to the US Constitution provides all US citizens with the right to free speech and legal precedent has been set that blanket blocking of sexual content is in breach of this law.

Blocking porn illegal in the USA

Currently, the US also has Net Neutrality laws which prevent ISPs from restricting access to lawful content. As we have reported, the FCC is in the process of repealing these laws, but many states are challenging this repeal, including Rhode Island.

Rhode Island’s Attorney General, Peter Kilmartin is one of the many State Attorneys signed up to a legal challenge against the FCCs roll back of net neutrality laws and the State itself is also in the process of following Washington in introducing its own State-level net neutrality legislation.

While this may be a worrying turn of events for Rhode Island internet users, they probably don’t have to fret too much just yet. The proposed legislation has now been passed to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is far from uncommon for Bills to sit at Committee State and never see the light of day again.

As Senator’s Ciccone and Gallo begin to realise the magnitude of what they have proposed and the precedent which it would set, it seems likely that they will not push this bill any further. This has also been the case with a similar piece of legislation in Virginia.

Rhode Island’s proposal easily circumvented

But even if it were to make it into law, it would appear to be almost unenforceable in any case. All users would need to do is connect to a VPN such as IPVanish or ExpressVPN and then hook up to a server outside of the state of Rhode Island and any block in place would be easily bypassed.

Even if the law was enforced nationwide, they would only have to connect to a server outside the US to circumvent it. In such a way, people get around state censorship in countries all over the world.

The US is not the only country where politicians appear to be trying to censors access to legal pornographic content at the moment. In the UK, an age verification system is about to be launched which will see many websites that fail to comply with the new requirements being blocked.

Again, a VPN will provide a simple solution to users there. And as much as legislators try to censor legal content around the world, VPNs will continue to offer free access to people everywhere.

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