Law & Principles

Online child-protections advance

Ray Carter | February 14, 2024

Two measures intended to reduce online child exploitation and harm won easy approval in Oklahoma House committees this week.

One measure targets companies that provide pornographic material by requiring those companies to have valid age-verification safeguards, while the other bill would prevent most children from having social-media accounts.

House Bill 3008, by state Rep. Randy Randleman, declares, “Any commercial entity that knowingly and intentionally publishes or distributes material harmful to minors on the Internet from a website that contains a substantial portion of such material shall be held liable if the entity fails to perform reasonable age verification methods to verify the age of individuals attempting to access the material.”

“We are trying to manage what is put in front of our children,” said Randleman, a Eufaula Republican and licensed psychologist. “To further explain it, if you go into a store that has pornographic material, it’s behind a section. It’s secluded. The children are protected. But on this phone, they are not protected at all.”

The legislation defines “material harmful to minors” as including anything that “the average person applying contemporary community standards” would find “is designed to appeal to or pander to the prurient interest.”

The legislation specifically targets material that “principally consists of descriptions of actual, simulated, or animated display” of sexual intercourse, masturbation, sodomy, bestiality, oral copulation, flagellation, excretory functions, exhibitions, or any other sexual act that is depicted “in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors.”

Under the bill, “reasonable age verification methods” would include a digitized identification card or requiring that a person attempting to access pornographic material must comply with a commercial age verification system.

The legislation applies to websites where more than one-third of the material is pornographic.

Randleman said child exposure to pornography contributes to behavioral and mental-health problems for those children, and the material is also a gateway for abuse.

“If you look at the research, also, on it, it shows that this is the first method that you get into trafficking,” Randleman said.

He said he has worked on the bill for three years and the current version is supported by the office of the attorney general and Google.

When similar laws were implemented in other states, Randleman said as much as 80 percent of pornographic material previously accessible to children was eliminated.

“Those people left that state,” Randleman said. “That’s what I hope this bill does for the state of Oklahoma.”

HB 3008 passed the House Judiciary–Criminal Committee on a 6-1 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support.

State Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, was the only legislator to oppose the bill.

“What I’m concerned with, representative, is lengthy litigation that seems to be a normal course of business here in this state as far as laws being challenged in court,” Lowe said.

House Bill 3914, by state Rep. Chad Caldwell, would make it illegal for social-media companies to allow children younger than 16 to be account holders and would require those companies to get the “express consent of a parent or legal guardian” before youth ages 16 and 17 can have an account.

Social-media companies that violate the proposed law could be held liable via penalties and required to pay families for any damages “resulting from a minor accessing a social media platform without their parent’s or custodian’s consent, including court costs and reasonable attorney fees as ordered by the court.”

The legislation applies only to companies with $100 million in annual gross revenue, but Caldwell said the bill will likely be revised as it proceeds through the legislative process.

Caldwell, R-Enid, noted several states have passed similar laws and that similar federal legislation is pending.

In response to a colleague’s question, Caldwell noted that youth access to social media has not only exposed some children to online pedophiles but has also been demonstrated to have a significant negative effect on a child’s emotional and mental health.

“There are several challenges with social media, not only the challenges you mentioned with predatory behavior, but also you look at the significant increases that we’ve seen in our society with anxiety, depression, instances of self-harm,” Caldwell said. “… Depending on the subgroup, you’re talking about rates of increases of between 50 to 150 percent, especially among teenage girls. Those are the challenges we’re trying to address with this.”

HB 3914 passed the House Government Modernization and Technology Committee on an 11-0 vote.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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