The proposal, which was passed in the state legislature last month, would require all devices sold in Utah after January 1st, 2022 to establish a preinstalled filter that blocks access to "material harmful to minors." Adults would have the option to deactivate the filter if they choose. If the bill is signed into law, any device manufacturer who does not abide by the law could receive a civil penalty ranging from $10 to $500.
Supporters argue the restriction is a critical step to help parents keep explicit content away from kids — especially as more children have their own electronic devices and have been forced to spend more time online during the coronavirus pandemic. But critics argue that the proposal is unconstitutional and could intrude on freedom of speech.
Gov. Spencer Cox, who assumed office in January, has not indicated publicly which way he's leaning. His spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, told the AP that Cox “will carefully consider this bill during the bill signing period.” Cox has until March 25 to decide.
If Cox signs the bill, Utah appears poised to become the first state to mandate filters on devices, though federal internet restrictions aimed at preventing kids from accessing porn were passed in the late 1990s and later stuck down in the courts.
However, the measure actually going into effect would require five other states to enact similar laws, according to a provision implemented in the bill after manufacturers and retailers voiced concerns that it would be difficult to implement the filters for a single state.
Combating porn is a perennial issue for Utah lawmakers, who have previously mandated warning labels on print and online pornography.
Utah, which is known to generally have a conservative culture, became the first state to declare porn as a public health crisis in 2016, and since then, more than a dozen states have followed suit by advancing similar resolutions. Leaders of the predominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faith have also drawn attention to what they consider the harms of pornography.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an anti-porn group, cheered the bill, saying that while many electronic devices come with filters installed, turning them on can be challenging for parents.
Boston University professor Emily Rothman added that research has raised questions about how pornography shapes children's attitudes about sex, and that content filters can be an important tool in keeping children from being exposed before it is healthy.
Rep. Susan Pulsipher, the chief sponsor of the proposal, has acknowledged the proposal is not a complete solution, as minors may find ways around the filtering system.
"A child that wants to find pornography and tries to would probably be able to still. It's just one step in the right direction," she told the Associated Press.
While Pulsipher contends the measure is constitutional since it allows adults to deactivate the filter, Samir Jain, the policy director at Washington, D.C.'s Center for Democracy and Technology, disagrees.
“You’ve basically got the state mandating the filtering of lawful content," he said. "That raises immediate First Amendment flags.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has blasted the bill, calling it an overreach that imposes the same standards on everyone.
“Parental filters already exist,” attorney Jason Groth told AP, “and every Utah parent can decide the level of access for their children.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report