Alabama House bill creates registration, filtering requirements for pornography companies

Legislation requires them to check ages of people logging into their sites

By: - May 22, 2023 7:01 am
A woman scrolling on a smartphone.

A woman scrolling on a smartphone.

An Alabama House committee Wednesday approved a bill requiring companies that distribute pornography to use filters aimed at preventing minors from viewing the material.

HB 441, sponsored by Rep. Ben Robbins, R-Sylacauga, mandates companies distributing material that is “harmful to minors” to have a system in place for verifying the ages and preventing people younger than 18 years old from having access.

“This bill is targeting the pornography industry,” Robbins said during the meeting. “Specifically, it is trying to prevent children from having access to pornography and across, basically, the internet.”

The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill on a voice vote.

The bill requires companies to have age verification systems using transaction data but does not outline the specifics of what companies are required to do.

“In some states they are using biometrics or facial recognition,” Robbins said. “Or it could be when you do a credit report, you have to give certain data to show that you are an adult, and you are the person you are claiming to be.”

To distribute pornography in the state, businesses must apply for a license in the same manner as other commercial enterprises doing business in the state.

But the bill would also require companies distributing pornography to register with the consumer protection division of the Attorney General’s Office. Firms would have to pay a one-time registration fee and an annual license fee, set by the division.

Half of the proceeds collected from the registration and licensing fees will be applied to the General Fund to be allocated to the Attorney General’s Office, while the other half will go to the Special Mental Health Trust Fund in the state treasury.

“We have to counterbalance some of the harm that is being done,” Robbins said. “Having those fees paid into the mental health trust fund helps offset, and provides us those avenues, to help our young people.”

Companies who are found to violate provisions in the bill are subject to civil penalty of up to $2,000 for each violation. Parents or guardians of children affected would also be able to bring litigation against violators.

The version that passed is a substituted version of the bill that Robbins introduced.

“We took out a provision concerning government-issued IDs,” he said after Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, expressed concerns related to privacy.

The most recent version defines how a person activates a device, which includes powering on an electronic device and establishing an account with that device. It also includes a definition of a filter, which is software that prevents a person from accessing or displaying pornography on a device.

Robbins said the new version removed language that established a cause of action due to concerns from Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook.

Under the legislation, the company distributing pornography must not keep any information of customers who access the materials and are also subject to monetary penalties for violating that provision.

The bill was originally scheduled for a public hearing.

Cleo Washington, vice president of external affairs for AT&T, had requested the public hearing on the bill because he had not had the chance to review it.

Washington said at the hearing that he will review the substitute and discuss any changes he wanted made with legislators.

J. Knox Argo, a Montgomery attorney who represented the Motion Pictures Association of America, spoke in favor of the bill.

“This bill has a chance of being an actual law that can be enforced,” he said. “It also puts the burden on the porno sites and not the business community, which we heartily endorse.”

The bill was only scheduled for a public hearing but several on the committee requested to vote on the measure because time is becoming a factor as the legislative session is winding to a close.

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, who chairs the committee, agreed to hold a vote on the bill.

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.