Ohio Pols Consider Extreme Age Verification Bill for First Time

COLUMBUS, Ohio—The Ohio state legislature heard for the first time House Bill (HB) 295, introduced last October by Republican state Rep. Steve Demetriou. HB 295 would require adult entertainment websites with content considered "harmful to minors" to verify users' ages using government identification or transactional data, with felony penalties for website operators who violate the law.

An amended version of the bill, dropping the penalties for website operators to a misdemeanor, was adopted during the hearing before the House Criminal Justice Committee on April 3. However, one of the more controversial elements of the bill is the establishment of a misdemeanor charge against minors who manage to circumvent the age gate through falsified records or the use of a virtual private network that spoofs an IP address. This journalist wrote for the Cleveland Scene in October that this sort of policymaking has caused concerns for civil liberties proponents who feel this type of punishment would lead to a youth justice crisis. 

AVN contacted the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, but the union had not responded as of press time.

During his testimony, Rep. Demetriou name-dropped the Free Speech Coalition, criticizing the organization as the "porn lobby." He also thanked the controversial Age Verification Providers Association, which has led some adult entertainment industry activists to question whether it supports equitable age-gating laws.

AVN emailed Iain Corby, the executive director of the Age Verification Providers Association (AVPA), to determine whether his trade group endorsed criminal penalties.

"Whether to legislate to require age assurance for adult content and what the penalties for failing to do so should be are questions for democratically elected representatives, not trade associations," Corby told AVN.

"We would always advise that unless properly enforced, users will simply access non-compliant sites or find other methods of evading these laws. Indeed, a critical success factor for implementation is a level playing field, where all sites and platforms which host any content legally defined as obscene feel compelled to prevent children accessing that content," he added.

Asked about the AVPA's position on adopting criminal penalties for minors who circumvent the age-gating requirement, Corby offered the broad response, "As a reminder, adult sites are not immune from penalties if minors use VPNs to access them from a state that requires age assurance." 

AVN previously reported that the AVPA was mischarachterized in a Politico story published in February as endorsing the criminalization of virtual private networks. While Demetriou insinuated in nodding to the AVPA during Wednesday's hearing that the association fully supports HB 295, it has neither confirmed nor denied as much.

Meanwhile, the Free Speech Coalition's executive director, Alison Boden, told AVN that she's concerned about the language in the bill.

"I applaud Rep. Demetriou for tackling the serious and growing problem of non-consensual deepfakes and image-based sexual abuse," said Boden, alluding to the provisions in the bill that would criminalize non-consensual deepfake porn and illegal content.

"It's unfortunate that he chose to include truly bizarre and unconstitutional provisions that would result in criminal charges for website operators—and children—for publishing or accessing certain content," she said, noting that the definition of what is harmful to juveniles in Ohio under the bill isn't clearly defined.

Critics of age verification in Ohio include performers and tech industry proponents. A notable critic is Alexandra Snow

Snow, a Columbus-based sex worker and founder of LGBTQ+ and sex work advocacy group the Autonomy Project, published a column on March 14 for The Columbus Dispatch criticizing a competing age verification bill that is currently before the Ohio Senate—Senate Bill (SB) 212

"As someone who champions ethical sexual education and exploration, I am dismayed at the attempt to use preventing minor access to adult material as a bait-and-switch tactic for a loss of privacy," Snow wrote, alluding to a critical argument that age verification legislation harms privacy rights and freedom of speech.

SB 212 is backed by state Sens. Stephanie Kunze, a Republican, and William P. DeMora, a Democrat. While still broad, SB 212 doesn't feature the extreme penalties of Demetriou's proposal to criminalize violators. AVN reported on SB 212 in January when the pair of lawmakers introduced the more palatable age verification measure.

Like HB 295, SB 212 is currently in the committee phase. Neither bill has experienced significant markup.