Government & Politics

Kansas lawmaker wants to block online access to porn, charge residents fee to see it

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New phones and computers would have to block access to pornography under a proposed Kansas bill that critics say raises constitutional issues.

Consumers 18 or older could have access to pornography for a $20 fee, the bill says.

The bill applies to all devices and services that help people get online, regardless of who is accessing the internet.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, said it is an effort to stop human trafficking and pornography. Similar bills have been introduced in other states.

“Because I think if we put some controls on what people can see, young people, that will keep them protected and away from possible human trafficking,” Garber said.

But critics immediately raised concerns that the bill would be unconstitutional.

The bill requires anyone selling products or services in Kansas “that make content accessible on the internet” to provide technology that blocks obscene content. Companies would be required to maintain a website or telephone line that consumers can use to report obscene content that isn’t being blocked and content that isn’t obscene but is being blocked.

The blocking technology can be turned off if consumers prove they are 18 or older, receive a written warning of the potential danger of deactivation and pay a $20 deactivation fee.

The money collected from the fee would go to a fund controlled by the attorney general to help combat human trafficking. Garber also introduced a separate bill that would charge a $3 fee to enter adult-oriented businesses. The money collected would go into the same fund.

Garber said he agrees that it should be up to parents to control access to pornographic material, adding that parents can pay $20 if they want their children to have access to it.

“I think it is up to parents ultimately. The problem is parents can’t be with their kids, when they give them a cell phone, 24 hours a day. So the parents might say ‘I don’t want you looking at that stuff.’ Well, if we have a filter on there, they won’t be able to look at it, and if the parents want it removed, they can have it removed,” Garber said.

Asked about the rights of adults, Garber emphasized that people over 18 can opt out.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said he thinks the legislation would likely be unconstitutional. He said the bill would censor communications over the internet.

“I understand folks are concerned about the effects of pornography, particularly on children. There is software that’s available that parents can put on their internet connections to deal with this problem,” Carmichael said. “But I would be very concerned about legislation that provides for monitoring of internet traffic, either by private companies or the government.”

He compared it to the expectation of privacy people have when talking over the phone. If the government wants to listen to or restrict what is said over the phone, it must be done based on probable cause and a warrant, he said.

“As well intentioned as the bill might be, I would not trade my right to privacy for a mandatory restriction of allegedly pornographic communications that can be dealt with on an individual basis by parents,” Carmichael said.

Garber’s legislation defines obscenity using the existing definitions in state law. According to Kansas law, obscenity includes “patently offensive representations or descriptions” of sex, masturbation and sadomasochistic abuse, among acts. It must also, when taken as a whole, lack serious literary, educational, artistic, political or scientific value.

Garber said similar bills have been introduced in several states. The proposals are being pushed by a group called the Special Forces of Liberty.

At least 27 states have Internet filtering laws that apply to publicly funded schools or libraries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most apply to internet use at school districts and public libraries.

A 2017 Daily Beast investigation found that a man in his 40s, Chris Seiver, was behind the broader proposal. Sevier once tried to legally marry his computer as a protest over gay marriage. In 2013, he also sued Apple for not automatically blocking porn, saying easy access to pornography caused him to become addicted and ruined his marriage.

Contributing: Scott Berson of McClatchy

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.