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Since a new law went into effect this July, pornography websites in Virginia have been required to more rigorously verify whether a person is 18 or over before allowing them to access adult content.
However, an analysis by the Virginia Mercury shows the majority of these websites are not using age verification methods as mandated.
Additionally, since the law went into effect, data shows that an increasing number of Virginians are using technology that can easily grant access to these websites from locations in the commonwealth.
The legislation passed the General Assembly on a nearly unanimous vote this March. Bill patron Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, told the Mercury the proposal aimed to curb children’s access to harmful adult content.
Under the law, websites must verify users’ age and identity but can select the specific method of verification, such as requiring users to upload copies of government-issued identification or adopting other unspecified commercial technology. The law also allows people to sue pornographic websites that don’t use proper age and identity verification methods “for damages resulting from a minor’s access to such material.”
While some pornography websites — most notably Pornhub — have opted to block users from accessing their platforms altogether in Virginia in protest of the new law, residents can still easily access adult content through a plethora of unrestricted, lesser-known websites.
To get an understanding of how many websites are complying with the law, the Mercury attempted to access the 65 “top porn tube sites” listed on toppornsites.com.
As of Aug 15, only one website, xHamster, is using age verification methods mandated by the law. Ten websites are blocked altogether, and 54 remain entirely unrestricted.
Free Speech Coalition Executive Director Alison Boden said a big reason why a lot of websites aren’t complying with the law is because their companies are not based in the United States, which makes it difficult to hold them accountable for breaking it.
“The actual legal jeopardy that an international company might face, especially since it would be like a private lawsuit from an individual, is not terribly high compared to what a U.S. company would face if sued by a person in Virginia,” Boden said.
Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he is aware of websites not complying with the law.
Boden also emphasized that less-mainstream websites, unlike Pornhub, often lack adequate guardrails that ensure content uploaded on their platforms is consensual and legal.
People are “definitely at risk of going to the site where they aren’t as stringent about verifying who’s uploading content, that it belongs to them, that it’s legal and consensual,” Boden said.
However, Virginians can still easily access blocked websites like Pornhub through virtual private networks, or VPNs — encryption methods that allow easy access to websites regardless of location.
According to 13NewsNow, Virginia had the highest number of searches for “VPN” or “virtual private network” of all states from June 29 through July 5.
NordVPN Public Relations Manager Darija Grobova said there was a 14% growth in VPN downloads from Virginia between June and July.
A representative from ExpressVPN said its website has seen a 15% increase in traffic from Virginia in the last two months.
ExpressVPN Digital Privacy Advocate Lauren Hendry Parsons said there are potential privacy concerns associated with uploading personal information through required age-verification methods.
“Across the United States, we are seeing a concerning trend of diminishing digital freedoms due to legislation,” Parson said. “We call upon legislators and the community to pursue better safeguards that prioritize the online safety of children without compromising an individual’s right to digital privacy and freedom.”
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