Anti-pornography bill is derailed after Utah lawmakers decline to take a vote

The fate of a proposal requiring mobile devices and tablets to filter out adult content by default is now uncertain after legislators suddenly adjourn.

(AP Photo/Lindsay Whitehurst) Rep. Susan Pulsipher's bill requiring new cell phones and tablets sold in Utah to filter out pornography was stopped after a House committee refused to take a vote on the proposal. It's not certain whether the West Jordan Republican's legislation will return this session.

A Utah House committee adjourned abruptly without taking action on a controversial bill aiming to prevent children from accessing adult-oriented content or pornography on cell phones and tablets. That could effectively kill the legislation this year without a vote.

HB72 requires any tablet or smartphone manufactured after January 1 of next year and sold in Utah to have content filters turned on by default, supposedly to help parents better grapple with confusing technology.

“These devices are very important parts of our lives. But they also have the capacity to expose us, particularly our young people, to content that may have a negative impact on them for a very long time,” explained Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan during Wednesday’s hearing.

Technology companies and manufacturers pushed back hard against the proposal, saying it put an undue burden on them and was most likely unconstitutional.

“The constitutional problems with this bill are numerous,” said Carl Czabo, Vice President and General Counsel for NetChoice, an organization that advocates for free expression online. “What I’m seeing here is government telling citizens what they can and cannot do with their own devices.”

“I agree that pornography is bad, but there are some significant problems with this bill that are going to result in some very important unintended consequences,” warned Dave Davis, President of the Utah Retail Merchants Association.

For instance, manufacturers could decide to not sell devices in Utah because of the requirements, which would force buyers to head out of state.

“That’s going to restrict the supply of smart devices into Utah. Big manufacturers are not going to make Utah-specific devices. It’s just not a big enough market,” said Davis.

In order to address that concern, Pulsifer altered her bill on Wednesday to delay implementation until five other states enacted similar legislation, which theoretically would head off those concerns by creating a critical population mass.

But, it wasn’t enough to get the committee to act on the legislation.

After two hours of testimony and comment from the public, lawmakers were set to vote on advancing the bill to the full House when Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden made a motion to hold the bill in committee, which would give proponents time to address any lingering concerns.

“I am extremely concerned about the unintended consequence of handing off our responsibility of parenting our children to big tech,” he said. “If we do this, I don’t see a way around these manufacturers requiring permanent location tracking on me and my kids. I don’t trust that, and I don’t believe that is our role.”

As the committee was prepared to discuss holding the bill, Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, motioned to adjourn the meeting, which passed.

The proposal’s fate is now in legislative limbo. The bill is still with the committee, but whether it comes up again this session is entirely up to the chairman, Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield.

During public debate, supporters said they were trying to level the playing field for overwhelmed parents, who are often bamboozled by technology.

Pulsipher’s bill also provides a path for private citizens to sue device manufacturers who did not comply with the filtering requirements. Those companies could face penalties of up to $2,500 per instance, which is similar to a bill passed in Utah last year requiring adult websites to put up a warning label or face a financial hit.

Pulsipher’s bill was based on an idea pushed by Chris Sevier, the anti-gay activist who protested same-sex unions by suing for the right to marry his laptop. Last year Sevier was behind proposed legislation in Utah allowing users to sue social media companies if their posts are deleted for political or religious reasons. Pulsipher admits she spoke with Sevier prior to bringing the bill to the legislature.