Pornhub pulls out of Montana, NC as age-verification battle rages on

Refusing to check ID —

Pornhub rallies users in eight states to demand device-based age verification.

To kick off the new year, Montana and North Carolina joined a growing number of states enforcing laws requiring age verification to access adult content online.

In the days before the laws took effect on January 1, Aylo—the owner of adult sites like Pornhub, Youporn, Brazzers, and Redtube—blocked access for users in both states, continuing to argue that requiring ID for every login makes adult sites less safe for everyone.

“As you may know, your elected officials in your state are requiring us to verify your age before allowing you access to our website,” adult entertainer Cherie DeVille said in a public service announcement displayed to users attempting to access sites in Montana and North Carolina. “While safety and compliance are at the forefront of our mission, giving your ID card every time you want to visit an adult platform is not the most effective solution for protecting our users, and in fact, will put children and your privacy at risk.”

Since Louisiana passed the first law requiring ID to watch porn early last year, Aylo has spent the past year arguing that device-based age verification is the safest and only “real” solution “for protecting children and adults alike,” as DeVille repeats in the PSA. A device-based solution would stop adult sites from collecting sensitive personal information from a large swath of users in eight states that now require age verification to watch porn—and any state that may follow suit and pass copycat legislation this year.

According to CNN, Pornhub and its private equity owners, Ethical Capital Partners (ECP), are currently working with big tech companies to create new device-based age verification solutions. Those efforts include lobbying Apple, Google, and Microsoft to “develop a technological standard that might turn a user’s electronic device into the proof of age necessary to access restricted online content.” But there has been no update on this front, leaving Aylo’s adult sites stuck in an uncomfortable position of either caving to states and collecting sensitive information from viewers or cutting off viewers entirely.

“Until a real solution is offered, we have made the difficult decision to completely disable access to our website in your state,” DeVille said.

A Pornhub spokesperson told Ars that the technology to accomplish device-based age verification “exists today,” but “what is required is the political and social will to make it happen. We are eager to be part of this solution and are happy to collaborate with government, civil society and tech partners to arrive at an effective device-based age verification solution.”

As more states have passed age verification laws, Aylo’s strategy of blocking access to protest laws has shocked some state lawmakers. In Utah, the Republican state senator who sponsored that state’s age-verification law, Todd Weiler, told Ars that he “did not expect adult porn sites to be blocked in Utah”—”not at all.” And in Texas, Pornhub and the Free Speech Coalition successfully sued to block an age-verification law from taking effect. That decision is still under appeal, according to Courthouse News Service.

By pulling out of states passing age-verification laws, Aylo hopes to rally users to join its fight against lawmakers. In DeVille’s PSA, the adult entertainer said that on top of increased privacy risks to users verifying their ages through a third party or “digitized identification,” states risk driving users to sites with fewer safety protocols, where residents’ sensitive data could be more easily breached. Warning viewers of this risk, DeVille urged users to contact state representatives “before it is too late” and “demand device-based verification solutions.”

It’s unclear how long adult sites can keep up this fight, though. While Aylo’s sites continue to resist regulatory pressure in the US, Pornhub also faces a perhaps even larger crackdown in the European Union.

In December, Pornhub was among three adult sites designated as a “Very Large Online Platform” (VLOP) in the EU. As a VLOP, Pornhub must “prevent risks to the well-being of children” and conduct risk assessments that “detail any negative effect” of its platform “on the protection of the mental and physical health of minors.” That means Pornhub will likely soon be required to redesign its platform to verify the ages of EU users, stop targeting ads at minors, and “ensure a high level of privacy, security, and safety of minors.”

Pornhub’s spokesperson told Ars that the EU has not explained why Pornhub was designated as a VLOP despite reporting 33 million monthly average users, which is below the 45 million users threshold required for VLOP designation.

“The safety of our users is our number one concern,” Pornhub’s spokesperson said. “We will always comply with the law, but we hope that governments around the world will implement laws that actually protect the safety and security of users.”

Pornhub agrees to safety updates

Late last year, Aylo announced some safety updates coming to its adult sites, including Pornhub, after an extensive investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI into Pornhub’s alleged hosting of videos of sex trafficking victims concluded last year.

Striking a deal with the federal government, Pornhub admitted no guilt, but admitted to receiving proceeds of sex trafficking between 2017 and 2019. Pornhub agreed to pay $1.8 million to sex trafficking victims whose videos were uploaded without the consent of Pornhub.

Under that deal, Pornhub also agreed to strengthen its content moderation, partly by using “state of the art proprietary and third-party AI-based software developed and designed to detect images or videos potentially depicting minors in content uploaded to its platforms,” as well as hashing technology that catches previously identified illegal or non-consensual content.

As a result of the investigation, in addition to scrutiny from state lawmakers, Aylo can expect that law enforcement will continue watching Pornhub closely. To ensure compliance, Pornhub will be regularly assessed by an independent third-party monitor for the next three years. Should Aylo’s platform be found to have breached the terms of the agreement, the company risks being prosecuted for Pornhub’s past unlawful monetary transactions.

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Ashley Belanger