Rhode Island lawmakers look to limit internet porn with a $20 fee

Lawmakers in Rhode Island are considering new legislation that would require internet service providers (ISPs) to automatically block “sexual content” and charge a fee of $20 to any customer who seeks to watch porn or other “offensive material.” That $20 fee would then be redirected to the state in order to “fund the operations of the council on human trafficking.”

The bill, titled “An Act Relating to Public Utilities and Carriers — Internet Digital Blocking,” would force ISPs to provide “a digital blocking capability that renders inaccessible sexual content and/or patently offensive material” That includes just about any form of sex and means that the bill, if signed into law, would effectively block all pornography in the state. But it could also go further. Because the bill suggests that ISPs would have to block “patently offensive material,” this could include anything that is “so offensive on its face as to affront current standards of decency.” Given the relative opacity of this standard, it’s unclear as to exactly how this material would be judged and what material might be affected.

Under the proposed legislation, if a customer wanted to bypass the initial block, he or she would have to request in writing that the capability be disabled; present identification to verify that he or she is at least 18 years old; acknowledge the receipt of a written warning about the danger of deactivating the block; and finally, pay the one-time $20 digital access fee.

This actually isn’t the first time that such legislation has been proposed. In February, lawmakers in Virginia offered up a similar bill, but it has yet to be passed.

While the bill would have been in violation of the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, given that the FCC is actually repealing its existing standards, the potential legislation is in the clear — at least from a federal legality standpoint. That said, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is one of many joining a lawsuit against the FCC looking to reverse the net neutrality repeal, which would render the law … unlawful. As Ars Technica reports, any overarching laws to ban pornography or sexual content might be in violation of the First Amendment.

Of course, even if the bill were to become law, it would come with a number of issues. Already, the bill’s sponsors recognize that ISPs would have to “establish a reporting mechanism, such as a website or call center, to allow a consumer to report unblocked sexual content or potentially offensive material or report blocked material that is not sexual content or potentially offensive.” And in the case that material is incorrectly blocked, the bill notes that “the material shall be unblocked within a reasonable time, but in no event later than five business days after the block is first reported.”

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