Alaska House approves social media ban for young kids, online pornography ID checks for all

By James Brooks, Alaska Beacon - April 27, 2024
Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, speaks Friday, April 26, 2024, on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon

The bill moves on to the Senate, but detractors said it could be subject to legal challenges even if it becomes law

The Alaska House of Representatives voted by a wide margin and with bipartisan support on Friday to ban children younger than 14 from using online social media.

House Bill 254, from Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, also requires companies that provide internet pornography to check whether an Alaskan viewing that pornography is at least 18 years old.

The bill, which passed on a 33-6 vote, advances to the state Senate for further consideration.

Vance said the age requirement, which also requires parents to sign off on 14- and 15-year-olds using social media, is about protecting children.

“It contributes to the well-being of our children, because we know that continued exposure to this kind of content affects their mental health, the way that they view themselves, the way that they view relationships, body images, and it really gives a twisted view of what healthy sexuality is,” she said before the vote.

The bill was originally written without the social media component, which was inserted via an amendment offered Wednesday night by Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage.

“I believe that with the inclusion of (a) social media (ban) for kids under 14, and only with parental consent for those under 16, we are achieving the goal of the underlying bill, which is to prevent young people from seeing online pornography,” Gray said before the vote.

Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage, speaks Friday, April 26, 2024, on the floor of the Alaska House of Representatives. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The bill’s opponents — and even some of its supporters — said they believe it raises privacy and constitutional free-speech concerns. The bill requires pornography websites to verify ages via a “commercially reasonable age verification method,” which could entail submitting an ID.

Supporters who acknowledged those issues said they hope that the Senate will address potential problems, while detractors said the potential problems are too big to be overcome.

“There might be a scenario in the future where it is safe enough to protect people from privacy concerns, but really, I am very concerned about the privacy of all individuals who might have to comply with this type of commercial age verification technology,” said Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage, who voted against the bill.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla and another opponent, said that right now, the United States has a very different view of the internet than a place like China, which puts restrictions on its citizens’ use.

“We are so close to going more in a direction with China’s internet,” he said, “where anytime you hop onto the Web, you have to upload your picture, you have to upload your template and again, you’re going have to do something to verify who you are, and then that will be tracked.”

The original version of the bill is similar to legislation backed by the National Decency Coalition, which says that 16 states have passed bills it supported.

Legal challenges in state and federal courts have had mixed results, and last month, the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Texas’ version of the law in a 2-1 decision.

Gray, who added the social media ban to the bill amid bipartisan support, also successfully amended it to include a $100 per-year state voucher for parents who buy content-filtering software.

Under the language of the amendment, parents would submit a reimbursement request to the state.

Eastman, speaking to the voucher plan, criticized it as poorly worded and suggested that Alaskans might be able to receive reimbursements for their Netflix subscriptions because that company offers content-filtering features on its video streaming service.

Vance said legislators should not lose sight of the bill’s ultimate goal.

“In the end, we’re protecting the most vulnerable among us,” she said.

The tally board in the Alaska House of Representatives displays the votes for and against HB 254 on Friday, April 26, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

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