Utah lawmaker wants to require new smartphones or tablets to filter out porn

Proposal is pushed partly by anti-gay activist who sued to marry his laptop.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 26, 2018, file photo, Rep. Susan Pulsipher questions Rep. Brian Greene about a bill in a committee of the Utah Legislature. Pulsipher is sponsoring legislation in the upcoming session that would require manufacturers to have parental controls on as a default setting on new smartphones and devices.

When you buy a new cellphone or tablet in Utah, you have to go through several steps to enable parental controls that filter out objectionable content such as pornography.

A bill proposed for debate in the upcoming legislative session would flip that around, requiring new devices to have those filters turned on by default, and users would have to turn them off if they wanted.

Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, is the sponsor of the measure, which would mandate new devices have those filters on beginning in 2022. HB72 also would open manufacturers to civil liability if they didn’t comply.

“Right now, those devices come with the filters turned off, and then the parent has to figure out how to turn them on. In many cases, they don’t quite know how to do it,” said Pulsipher. “That can be frustrating, so we’re saying let’s have those devices come with the filter turned on.”

Pulsipher says similar legislation is under consideration in several other states but did not have an exact number.

The civil penalties are similar to a bill passed in the 2020 session requiring adult websites to put up a warning label or face a potential financial hit. The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, says the threat of financial penalties against those websites is pushing them to comply.

“It’s having an impact,” he said. “The priorities for law enforcement are such that they’re not going to prosecute unless it’s a significant issue. But threatening their pocketbooks is a different issue.”

Many of those websites began complying with the Utah law earlier this year.

“It’s rare to have major players doing something in response to an obscenity law,” added Brammer.

The content filter legislation is not a new idea. It’s an issue that has been pushed in a number of states by Chris Sevier. You may remember him as the anti-gay activist who protested same-sex unions by suing for the right to marry his laptop, describing his sexual orientation as “machinist.” Earlier this year Sevier was behind a proposed piece of legislation in Utah allowing social media users to sue platforms if their posts are deleted for political or religious reasons.

When asked if she was working with Sevier on her bill, Pulsipher curtly responded, “We’ve talked.” She would not elaborate, but says there are other people involved with her legislation as well.

Sevier was also behind a 2018 anti-pornography proposal in several states mandating that internet service providers or device manufacturers install a filter to block obscene content. The filter could be disabled for a $20 payment. Sevier attached Elizabeth Smart’s name to the bill, prompting Smart to send him a cease-and-desist letter.

In 2016, the Utah Legislature unanimously passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis in the state. Here’s the text of that legislation.

“We’re trying to keep minors safe from pornography. We restrict minors’ access to tobacco. It’s been so easy for them to get pornography,” Pulsipher said. “We’re just trying to make it less easy for them to access pornography and other online content that may be harmful.”