Virginia’s Age Verification Law: Intent vs. Reality

Virginia launched a new age verification mandate for adult websites last July. However, recent investigations reveal significant gaps in the enforcement of this law, suggesting it may not be achieving its intended protective goal. Passed by the General Assembly in March with a sweeping majority, the legislation, championed by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, obliges pornographic websites to ascertain the age and identity of users. Yet, the specifics of these verifications – from uploading government ID to other commercial tech solutions – are left to the websites' discretion. The problem is, the 3rd party "commercial tech solutions" cost around $1-$2 per user. Considering that many of these large websites generate millions of visitors a day, legislators don't talk about who is supposed to pay for these ID verifications. Will the state of Virginia foot the bill for its citizens to verify for their age? If not, then what is the answer? A recent probe by the Virginia Mercury, a non-profit, nonpartisan news website, reveals that many of these porn sites aren’t living up to the legislative standard. Out of the 65 most frequented adult websites, a staggering 54 remain wholly unrestricted for users in Virginia, with only xHamster rigorously adopting the age verification criteria set by the state. In a gesture of protest, major player Pornhub has blocked Virginians from accessing its platform, but numerous other lesser-known sites remain unfettered.
According to Alison Boden, the Free Speech Coalition’s Executive Director, the core challenge lies in the international nature of many of these websites. Holding foreign entities accountable under Virginia's jurisdiction is, understandably, a complex endeavor. "The risk of legal repercussions for international firms, especially considering potential lawsuits from private individuals, doesn’t pose as significant a threat as it would for a US-based company,” Boden elaborated.
Attorney General Jason Miyares has yet to comment on this glaring enforcement lapse. Boden further highlighted the dangers of less reputable websites which might not enforce consent and legality standards as stringently as their mainstream counterparts. Moreover, the legislation appears to have had an unintended consequence: a surge in Virginians seeking encrypted pathways to bypass website restrictions. In a telling statistic, Virginia topped the nation in searches for "VPN" shortly after the law's inception. VPN service providers, including NordVPN and ExpressVPN, reported a sharp spike in downloads and traffic from Virginia, signaling that residents are finding ways around the newly-imposed blocks.
Echoing concerns about online privacy, ExpressVPN's Lauren Hendry Parsons pointed to potential risks linked to age-verification processes. "While it's crucial to prioritize the online safety of children, this shouldn't come at the cost of individual digital rights," Parsons stressed.
As Virginia grapples with the teething issues of this nascent legislation, the overarching narrative underscores the timeless challenge of governance in the digital age: how to strike a balance between protection and freedom in an ever-evolving online world.

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