Alaska House seeks to ban social media for kids, limit access to internet pornography

By: James Brooks/Alaska Beacon

A vote on the proposal could take place as soon as Friday, and if it succeeds, the idea would go to the state Senate

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is seen during a meeting of the committee on March 11, 2024. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Juneau, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) – Late Wednesday night, the Alaska House of Representatives advanced toward a final vote on a proposal that would ban children younger than 14 from using social media and require all Alaskans to verify their age before viewing pornography online.

House Bill 254, sponsored by Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, originally contained just the porn age requirement, but it was amended by Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage, to include the youth social media ban, which was proposed in a separate bill by Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla.

Modeled after legislation passed by eight other states, Vance’s proposal would require Alaskans to verify that they are at least 18 years old through a “commercially reasonable age verification method,” before viewing internet porn.

“The entire point of this bill is to prevent the access of minors (to pornography),” Vance said of her original proposal.

In response to other states’ laws, some websites now require their users to submit information to a third-party website that verifies the user’s age before permitting access. 

Vance’s proposal says that a “government-issued identification” such as a driver’s license may need to be submitted, “or another method that relies on public or private transactional data” could be used. 

The bill says the verification method cannot retain personal information. 

Louisiana was the first state to pass an ID-requirement law, and seven other states have since followed suit. 

Kansas, whose legislature passed a nearly identical bill in late March, is poised to become the ninth state with an ID requirement, and similar proposals are advancing in Nebraska and South Carolina, among other states.

Those state laws have been in challenged in court on free-speech grounds with mixed results at the district court level. Last month, the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Texas’ law in a 2-1 decision, and that state’s attorney general has been aggressive about filing lawsuits against websites that it believes are violating the law. 

After that decision, Pornhub — sometimes labeled the “YouTube of porn” — disabled its website for Texas users. In Louisiana, visits to the site dropped by 80% after its law went into effect, the news site Government Technology reported. 

Currently, neither Alaska’s state government nor a company operating in the state offer the digital IDs required by the bill.

Gray said he is concerned by the idea that children will use virtual private networks (commonly called VPNs) to bypass the proposed age gates and offered a series of amendments to the bill.

At his suggestion, the House voted 21-17 to add a state-paid voucher program to Vance’s bill. Two legislators were excused absent and did not vote.

If the provision remains in the final version of the bill, the state would “reimburse a parent up to $100” each year for parental control software that allows parents to control a child’s internet access. The amount of the voucher would be adjusted each year for inflation.

The parent of a 10-year-old, Gray said he believes allowing children to use social media is as harmful as pornography, and introduced an amendment that forbids “a minor under 14 years of age” from creating or maintaining a pre-existing social media account.

Someone who is 14 or 15 can create an account with “written consent from the minor’s confirmed parent.”

Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage, is one of the youngest members of the Legislature and spoke in support of the idea. 

She grew up on the Internet, she said, joining MySpace at 12, Facebook at 13, and went on 4Chan when she was 10.

“Socialization online can be so important … but the way that social media corporations have preyed on young kids, I think is unhealthy,” she said.

An age-14 limit makes sense, she said, because while social media was a big part of her high school experience, middle school “and those younger years are a little bit sensitive.”

Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, is the youngest member of the Legislature and opposed the bill. In rural Alaska, Facebook is the most common online communications tool, and he joined when he was 13.

He said he found the rhetoric around the bill “frustrating,” because while social media has its negatives, “I think there’s a lot of power in social media, especially for rural kids.”

“I think we need to combat the evils of social media, but removing it for all young people is not the way to go,” he said.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, also joined opponents, saying the idea of a ban raises First Amendment concerns and a ban “would be a significant departure” from the free-speech language in the state and American constitutions.

With bipartisan support, Gray’s amendment passed, 27-11. Two legislators were excused absent and did not vote.

HB 254 remains in the House, with a final passage vote tentatively scheduled for Friday. If the bill passes the House, it will advance to the Senate for further consideration.