Sometimes, Rep. Paul Ray just wants to order his favorite soda while he’s working at the Capitol. Unfortunately for him, Bourbon Cream Soda doesn’t make it past state web filters that prevent legislators, lobbyists, state employees and the public from accessing sites that could be useful to public policy debates in the Legislature.
So like Ray, who has to either use his personal hot spot to order his Bourbon Cream Soda or do it from home, Ray’s colleagues won’t be able to research the largest electronic cigarette brands that would be taxed under HB88.
They won’t be able to look at the websites for MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch or Constellation Brands. These three brewing companies produce 80 percent of the beer sold in Utah, much of which will be pulled off grocery store shelves unless lawmakers change state law setting a cap on alcohol content.
“They say MillerCoors is talking about reducing their product offering,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, the author of Utah’s controversial new DUI law who has two other alcohol bills in the works this session. “It’s important to the public policy debate to say what does MillerCoors produce, how much do they produce, where do they produce and what is their offering?”
Brewers are hoping lawmakers will loosen Utah’s requirement that only weak beer be sold at grocery and convenience stores, and warm, regular-strength beer sold only at state-run liquor stores. But attorneys who write bills, lobbyists tracking the bills down and the public following along all have their internet access regulated by a policy from the Department of Technology Services while they’re at the Capitol or other executive branch buildings across the state. These restrictions block alcohol websites.
There are steps that can be taken for nonpartisan legislative staff that help write and analyze bills to get past the barrier for a single website. Otherwise, they’re likely subject to the filters.
If they’re using the free internet at the Capitol, they won’t be able to see the sprawling lists of beer brands that will be drastically cut back as a result of the state’s restrictive alcohol laws.
People at the Capitol also will have a hard time researching products that are produced from hemp, a non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana. Rep. Brad Daw and Sen. Evan Vickers are proposing to regulate a rapidly growing hemp products market.
Meanwhile, the filters don’t prevent users from accessing websites that sell guns and ammunition, such as discountgunandammo.com or grabagun.com.
In another policy area, Ray’s bill would raise almost $7 million through the first excise tax on electronic cigarettes. One of the largest manufacturers is Juul, whose website is Juul.com.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, was blocked from taking a look at Juul’s products while on the Capitol internet, though he did access its site from his cellphone data plan.
If accessing from a data plan off the state’s network, he’d see Juul offers products with fruity flavors like mango, fruit medley and cool cucumber. That could be an important piece of information, given a recent study in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that found young people are at enhanced risk for switching from electronic cigarettes to health-damaging traditional cigarettes.
The company’s marketing code says it doesn’t target minors, current or former smokers with its advertising, and its campaigns only depict people who are older than 35. The study found, however, that e-cigarettes are popular with children aged 17 and younger. (The study is not blocked in the Capitol).
Weiler called it “interesting” that his internet was filtered. But he said the people who determine the state’s web-blocking policy are “looking at what their full-time employees are going to be doing all day. I don’t think they’re trying to keep the Legislature from getting the information they need to do their jobs.”
According to the DTS policy on web blocking: “The purpose of this policy is to establish a baseline for restricting Internet access in order to reduce the risk of exposure to State of Utah Information Systems and Network.”
“What I understand is these topics are being blocked because they are non-work topics,” said Stephanie Weteling, DTS spokeswoman.
They are work topics in the view of Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who said he’ll propose a bill this session to repeal Utah’s toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law — the one sponsored last year by Thurston.
“It’s demeaning,” Dabakis said of the filtering. “Who are they protecting?”
Drivers on Interstate 15 in the Wasatch Front may have noticed the bright yellow and pink billboard that says Cosmopolitan magazine contains pornographic material. But that’s not true, according to the state’s web filter. While sexually explicit material is blocked, Cosmopolitan’s website is not.
The state has been blocking legal and illegal sites from its internet for “many, many years,” Weteling said, and issued the formal policy in 2016. It was most recently reviewed and approved in November.
While the internet-access policy is aimed at curbing the “risk of exposure” to state systems, it is also a slight nuisance to Ray and his soda sweet tooth.
“They kicked my cream soda habit,” he said.