House bill would add cell-phone filter

Published 1:50 am Saturday, April 8, 2017

By Taylor Dawson

Alabama legislators plan on forcing your mobile phone company to block illegal content on your phone, then forcing you to pay $20 to access it again.

House Bill 428 requires all electronic devices providing Internet access to contain an active filter that blocks child pornography, images used for sexual cyberharassment, prostitution, and human trafficking. If you’re annoyed that you can no longer view this content, there’s a simple solution provided in the bill: submit a written request, verify your age, receive a warning about deactivating the filter, and pay $20 to the Department of Revenue. You’ll be back on your way to viewing illegal content in no time.

That should strike you as bizarre.

This bill raises a couple of important questions: Is it feasible for mobile phone companies to create and maintain the type of filter mandated by the bill? If it is possible, why on earth would we create a provision allowing people to circumvent it?

It’s important to distinguish the types of content that HB 428 actually covers. The content covered by the proposed filter is already illegal in Alabama: sexual cyberharassment (Ala. Code §13A-11-8), prostitution (Ala. Code § 13A-12-121), child pornography (Ala. Code § 13A-6-111), human trafficking (Ala. Code § 13A-6-152), and obscene material (Ala. Code § 13A-12-200.2).

The fact is, existing internet content filters simply aren’t that precise. They can distinguish between drug use, violence, or pornographic content. But blocking algorithms are not able to make a judgment call between legal pornographic content and illegal obscenity or child pornography.

In that sense, HB 428 mandates that phone companies install a filter that does not already exist. That requires them to develop the filter, provide for regular updates to the filter, and create a mechanism to have the filter removed, all at their own expense.

Let’s just assume Alabama’s conservative legislators feel that a severe government mandate is justified to block illegal content, stop sex trafficking and cyberharrassment, and protect our children.

Again, why would you allow someone to declare his or her age and pay 20 to the government to regain access?

That’s going to be interesting when someone charged with possession of child pornography raises the defense that they paid $20 to the Alabama Department of Revenue, which, in turn, “authorized” access.

HB 428 creates an impossible private-sector mandate and follows with a nonsensical removal provision. For conservatives who believe we should do everything in our power to fight child pornography, sex trafficking, cyberharrassment, and obscenity, this isn’t the right answer. A better answer would be encouraging individuals to utilize readily available tools and innovations such as TraffickCam, Covenant Eyes, or Net Nanny to fight human trafficking and guard against content that is illegal and destructive.

While this bill might be popular for conservative legislators to introduce, it would be more ideal to promote policies that are feasible and actually advance the noble objectives that their sponsors and supporters claim.


Taylor Dawson is Communications Director for the Alabama Policy Institute (API). API is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organization.