New Age Verification Law in Virginia Enters Force July 1

RICHMONDVirginia is the next jurisdiction in the United States to implement a law that requires all adult entertainment websites to have age verification measures in place or face civil action. Similar to age verification laws implemented in states like Utah and Louisiana, Senate Bill (SB) 1515 was adopted with virtually universal support from lawmakers in both of the state’s major political parties. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed SB 1515 into law at the behest of parental rights groups and organizations that believe that age verification mandates are the best way to prevent minors from viewing age-restricted content, like pornographic sites.

“If we're going to sit here and just say, ‘Well, there's nothing we can do about it—it's the, you know, darn old internet,’ then we're abrogating our responsibility to our children,” said state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, during a committee hearing vetting SB 1515 that was held in February 2023. He’s the prime sponsor of the legislation. Stanley, unfortunately, neglected the input of adult entertainment organizations and NGOs that believe mandating age verification in the format of Louisiana’s model would risk data security and the privacy rights of users. Since most of these laws require government identification or a credit card, adult industry groups and privacy rights activists have warned about these laws. AVN reported that Pornhub earlier this month issued a public service announcement to several states, including Virginia, urging them to contact their representatives to challenge these regulations. The PSA features AVN MILF Performer of the Year Cherie DeVille, who appeared in a similar video when Pornhub announced that it would block the entire state of Utah due to age verification restrictions implemented there in May.

“Adult entertainment is called that for a reason: It's for adults. Nobody in this industry wants minors watching their content,” DeVille told AVN in an email. “But these laws don't stop minors from watching porn. Anyone who has a teenager knows they use VPNs to watch anime and play video games. They'll use VPNs to get around this law.” This reporter spoke to DeVille in a story for the Salt Lake City Weekly, in which she noted that these sorts of laws “[don’t] solve the problem.”

Industry trade group the Free Speech Coalition (FSC) has filed suit in federal district courts in both Utah and Louisiana seeking to render the age verification laws in those states unconstitutional on the grounds of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. FSC director of public affairs Mike Stabile characterized the law in Virginia as dangerous and and said the organization has reached out to Gov. Youngkin with little results.

“The Virginia law suffers from the same technological and constitutional problems as the laws in Utah and Louisiana,” Stabile told AVN in an email. “Adult consumers shouldn't have to risk surveillance or secure government approval in order to view legal content in the privacy of their own home.”  

Asked whether FSC plans to file litigation against Youngkin’s administration and the Virginia state government, Stabile said that he doesn’t “want to speak to litigation if it hasn't been filed. I can say this: We are looking at potential suits in every state that has passed this law, including Virginia.” 

AVN contacted Ethical Capital Partners, the new ownership group of Pornhub's parent company MindGeek, seeking comment with regards to a potential geo-block in Virginia, and potentially other states like Texas or Arkansas.

A spokesperson for Ethical Capital Partners declined to comment until the law enters force. This was also the same position for a spokesperson for MindGeek. Speaking independently of the Pornhub team despite being featured in the aforementioned PSA, DeVille commented, “There is a problem, but this isn’t a solution. It’s an excuse to monitor what porn consenting adults watch and a Trojan horse to take down the legal adult industry.”

From a consumer point of view, Louisiana resident Elizabeth Henson spoke with Slate staff writer Heather Schwedel about the issue. Henson, a Coast Guard spouse and a military veteran herself named as a plaintiff in the FSC’s class action against the state, explained that “[it’s] not like there’s anything unusual about adults wanting to access porn.“It’s not like, when I log into HBO ... they ask me my age. I get if you go to a movie theater out in public, they card you for an R-rated movie. But in the privacy of your own home, you don’t get carded for watching an R-rated movie.”

The sentiments for consumers in other states, including Virginia, are very likely echo Henson's—in that they don’t want to share their identity cards in order to access a particular website, especially one offering porn and adult content. The Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University conducted a nationally-representative survey regarding public opinions on age verification requirements in order to access and use social media platforms in particular jurisdictions. While the survey came at a time when Utah and Texas introduced bills requiring parents’ government identification or credit card information in order for their kids to use social media platforms, two out of three of the survey’s respondents indicated that they are “not comfortable sharing their identification document with social media companies.” This presumably would apply to age verification for adult sites as well. 

Adult industry attorney Corey Silverstein told AVN that the new Virgina law is “foolish.”

“Virginia’s law, much like Louisiana, Utah, and others are not going to survive First Amendment challenges. While these politicians are patting themselves on the back for pushing through these blatant speech suppression tools, they seem to have forgotten about the First Amendment that they swore to protect when they took office,” Silverstein said. To that point, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union that age-gating content on the internet, even if it isn’t “porn,” is a violation of free speech rights. This case gutted the Communications Decency Act of 1996 for broadly censoring content on the internet in the name of “protecting the children.” The high court found the law far-reaching and abrogated much of it, except the safe-harbor provisions found in Section 230.

“It's unfortunate when the United States seemingly has an endless list of problems (out of control inflation, employment, world conflicts, crime etc.), that they want to waste valuable resources to score points with their conservative voters,” Silverstein concluded.

Virginia’s age verification law goes into effect on July 1, 2023. 

Image by Lola Anamon from Pixabay