Utah Bill Would Block Wi-Fi Access to Minors
There’s a new twist on policymaking efforts to make the Internet safe for young people: denying them access to it altogether. A bill in the Utah state legislature would require public wifi providers to ensure that minors can’t access the Internet. If passed, Utah libraries and community networks could find themselves shutting down publicly accessible wireless networks that are essential for many young people to conduct schoolwork off-campus.
The legislation, known as HB 139, was introduced last month by Bradley Daw. According to the latest draft of the law, “A person may not provide wireless Internet access to the public unless the person restricts access to prevent a minor from accessing material harmful to minors.” It would require operators of open wifi networks to “use a reasonable method for ascertaining the age” of a user, such as requiring a credit card number to secure access.
“A person who fails to utilize measures designed to restrict access to prevent a minor from accessing material harmful to minors violates this chapter if a minor accesses material harmful to minors,” the bill continues. Anyone found to be in violation of the statute could receive a fine up to $1,000.
Already, local operators of public access networks are expressing deep concern that the bill would force them to cease operation, as public radio station KCPW recently reported last week:
The founder of the largest free wireless network in Utah says he’ll be forced to shut it down if proposal on Capitol Hill passes. The bill would require all public wireless networks to restrict access to minors, or be held liable for damages if minors access pornographic material.
XMission founder Pete Ashdown says he can’t afford to expose himself to civil damages. He says there’s no way to guarantee that minors can’t access his wireless network without shutting it down. Ashdown says he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of XMission’s own money setting up the network at places like Library Square and Pioneer Park.Bill sponsor Representative Brad Daw says XMission doesn’t have to implement a foolproof system that would restrict access to all minors. He says as long as the company requires users to enter a credit card number, it won’t be liable if minors do access harmful material. But Ashdown says that since minors often have access to credit cards, such a system wouldn’t serve any purpose.
Rep. Daw still feels that some kind of legislation is necessary. “It’s just too easy for kids to hop on and surf to places that are pornographic, and chat rooms and that kind of thing,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. But pressure from public wifi providers has already forced him to start reworking the bill. For example, rather than requiring age verification, a revised version of the bill might require filtering software on public wifi networks.
This, too, is fraught with problems. As any teacher working behind an Internet filter knows, they’re far from perfect. Valuable online resources get blocked while inappropriate content slips through. Just this week I heard from someone who couldn’t access NPR’s Super Tuesday coverage because their school’s filter blocked the site - presumably because the site features blogs. Same thing with this blog - I regularly encounter educators unable to read or reply to my posts until they get home from school because of filters.
Filtering freely available Internet access would basically send the signal that open access is a privilege only for those who can afford it. Others who rely on free public wifi - adults as well as minors - would be relegated to a smaller, less useful Internet - an Internet where some nameless person determines for them what’s acceptable for them to use and what’s not. Given the track record of Internet filters being used in schools and libraries to block content capriciously just because it’s posted on a blog or Twitter or YouTube, would similar problems arise on filters placed on public wifi networks? Probably. Meanwhile, any such legislation would likely prompt a swift constitutional challenge.
It’s frustrating enough for educators that they lack the authority to override filters when using the Internet in the classroom. I can only imagine the frustration of Utah educators if those same restrictions followed them to whatever public space where wifi was freely available. Meanwhile, students whose families can’t afford to pay for their own access at home will find themselves with fewer options to use the Internet when they’re off school grounds.
As far as this bill is concerned, the choice boils down to “block all kids but give adults access to everything,” or “block lots of content and give access to everyone.” For lots of people, that won’t seem like much of a choice at all. -andy