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Online porn restriction laws are causing a VPN boom

Across the US, a growing number of states are making it harder for users to anonymously access certain websites. States like Texas and Louisiana have passed laws requiring platforms like Pornhub to verify user identities to prevent minors from viewing “harmful” adult content. Florida is considering similar legislation, aiming to restrict or ban social media access for underage users due to perceived psychological risks.

These measures all hinge on online platforms collecting government IDs or implementing third-party age verification systems. However, such verification necessitates screening all users, not just minors. This raises concerns for adult users of these platforms, who previously enjoyed a level of anonymity. The prospect of their personal information being readily available alongside their browsing history is unsettling for many.

Critics further warn that these laws could be misused. They fear that conservative lawmakers might define “adult” content broadly, potentially targeting material from LGBTQ+ creators or marginalized groups. This could have a chilling effect, shutting out vulnerable teenagers from online support networks they rely on.

The impact is already evident. Following the implementation of such laws, experts report a surge in VPN usage in affected states. Leading VPN providers have documented significant spikes in demand coinciding with the enactment of these restrictions. This suggests users are actively seeking ways to circumvent them and regain a degree of online privacy.

“Wherever U.S. lawmakers have imposed age verification on internet users trying to access adult content online over the past 12 months, there has been a clear trend in the corresponding surges in demand for VPNs,”  Simon Migliano, the Head of Research at Top10 VPN, declared that in the most severe scenario, he alleges that demand for the technology surged by 847% the day the state’s new laws were implemented.

How VPNs are being used

Since the 1990s, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have become a digital cloak, scrambling user data and masking their physical location. This technology empowers viewers to bypass geo-restrictions, unlocking shows and sporting events unavailable in their region. Beyond entertainment, VPNs offer an extra layer of security for sensitive communications. For whistleblowers, journalists, and activists navigating oppressive regimes, VPNs have been a vital tool for maintaining online anonymity for years.

“A VPN is an effective tool for circumventing any kind of internet censorship, as it allows users to access the restricted content via an IP address from a location under a different jurisdiction from their own,” Migliano noted.

Instead of focusing on the institutions: Andre Slonopas, a cybersecurity leader at American Public University and American Military University, emphasizes the role of Virtual Private Network (VPN) services. He argues that VPNs empower internet users worldwide to achieve online anonymity. This, in turn, allows them to transform into “borderless citizens” of the internet, freely navigating virtual spaces unrestricted by geographical barriers.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to hear other ideas, opinions, learn about worldviews and connect with humans on a different level,” Slonopas stated

While Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have historically been a tool for circumventing content limitations abroad, Samir Jain, Vice President of Policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, observes a recent uptick in their use by Americans to bypass similar restrictions domestically. Jain attributes this shift partly to the dubious legality of these new laws, which he believes would have faced challenges in court previously. Unsurprisingly, Jain, whose organization advocated against a recent law in Texas, notes a surge in VPN use in affected states.

“If you provide a government ID to prove you are in effect no longer anonymous,” Center for Democracy and Technology Vice President of Policy Samir Jain mentioned.

“If people no longer feel like they can do that [access information anonymously] that infringes on their First Amendment expression right,” Jain added.

Lauren Hendry Parsons, an ExpressVPN Privacy Advocate, agreed with this view.

“We know that when legislators restrict consumer access to services like porn, citizens still find a way to access it,” Hendry Parsons said.

There is absolutely a middle ground to be found that leans on third-party cooperation instead of limiting consumer rights,” Parsons mentioned.

What are platforms doing in response to the new laws?

Seven states, primarily under Republican leadership, have enacted laws that leverage age verification to curb minors’ access to pornography. These “access restriction” measures largely mirror a groundbreaking Louisiana law passed in 2022 and implemented early last year. According to The Verge, this pioneering legislation has spawned at least 17 imitations, several of which are on the verge of becoming law themselves. In Texas, violating websites could face hefty daily fines exceeding $10,000, CBS News reported.

Faced with potential legal repercussions, some adult content platforms like Pornhub have opted to restrict access from users residing in states with these new regulations. Last month, Texan internet users attempting to access Pornhub, the undisputed leader in online adult video content, were met with a lengthy company statement outlining their opposition to the state’s “rushed, inefficient, and risky” law. Pornhub has implemented similar access restrictions for users in several other states with similar age verification requirements. Beyond avoiding penalties, experts suggest platforms are also wary of the legal burden associated with collecting and safeguarding vast amounts of sensitive user data, which could become a target for cybercriminals.

“Age verification systems collect a huge amount of data, not only the personal information from each ID but also a record of each and every authentication made—essentially any site you access that features adult content. Combined with the data profiling social media companies create about their users, this treasure trove of personal information is a perfect target for bad actors,” Hendry Parsons stated.

VPN usage on the rise could bring new scrutiny from lawmakers

While many associate VPNs with accessing restricted adult content, a surprising trend is emerging. College students across the US are reportedly utilizing VPNs to bypass university bans on TikTok. This tactic even extends to Montana, where creators are adapting to the state’s TikTok ban by using VPNs to maintain connections with their audiences. It seems lawmakers seeking to restrict online content will always find a determined VPN service willing to provide users with a virtual escape route.

However, the growing popularity of VPNs for accessing blocked content carries potential drawbacks. Lawmakers might be spurred by users blatantly circumventing new legislation with VPNs to implement stricter regulations on the technology itself. This concern is particularly relevant for anti-porn laws, like Utah’s, which already prohibit online platforms from enabling minors to bypass access restrictions. Digital rights advocates fear that recently proposed legislation restricting foreign app access for US users may include provisions criminalizing VPN use.

While acknowledging these concerns, Apar Jain from the Center for Democracy and Technology argues that new laws criminalizing or restricting VPNs could prove counterproductive and potentially face legal challenges based on constitutional grounds. Jain suggests that the current wave of laws prompting the rise in VPN adoption may eventually lead to Supreme Court battles over their legality.

“There are a lot of legitimate reasons to use VPNs to protect your privacy and anonymity,” Jain concluded.

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