EFF Urges Supreme Court to Reject Texas’ Speech-Chilling Age Verification Law

A Texas age verification law will rob people of anonymity online, chill access to speech for privacy- and security-minded internet users, and entirely block some adults from accessing constitutionally protected online content, EFF argued in a brief filed with the Supreme Court last week.

EFF joined the Woodhull Freedom Foundation in filing a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to grant review of—and ultimately overturn—the Fifth Circuit’s decision upholding the Texas law.

Last year, the state of Texas passed HB 1181 in a misguided attempt to shield minors from certain online content. The law requires all Texas internet users, including adults, to complete invasive “age verification” procedures on every website the state deems to be at least one-third composed of sexual material. Under the law, adult users must upload sensitive personal records—such as a driver’s license or other photo ID—to access any content on these sites, including non-explicit content. After a federal district court put the law on hold, the Fifth Circuit reversed and let the law take effect.

The Fifth Circuit’s decision disregards important constitutional principles. The First Amendment protects our right to access protected online speech without substantial government interference. For adults, this is true even if that speech constitutes sexual or explicit content. The government cannot burden adult internet users and force them to sacrifice their anonymity, privacy, and security simply to access lawful speech.

EFF’s position is hardly unique. Courts have repeatedly and consistently held similar age verification laws to be unconstitutional due to these and other harms. As EFF noted in its brief, the Fifth Circuit’s decision is an anomaly and has created a split among federal circuit courts. 

In coming to its decision, the Fifth Circuit relied largely on a single Supreme Court case from 1968, involving a law that required an in-person ID check to buy magazines featuring adult content. But online age verification is nothing like flashing an ID card in person to buy a particular physical item.

For one, HB 1181 blocks access to entire websites, not just individual offending magazines. This could include many common, general-purpose websites, so long as only one-third of the content is conceivably adult content. “HB 1181’s requirements are akin to requiring ID every time a user logs into a streaming service like Netflix, regardless of whether they want to watch a G- or R-rated movie,” EFF wrote.

Second, and unlike with in-person age-gates, the only viable way for a website to comply with HB 1181 is to require all users to upload and submit, not just momentarily display, a data-rich government-issued ID or other document with personal identifying information. In its brief, EFF explained how this leads to a host of serious anonymity, privacy, and security concerns.

For example, HB 1181 may permit the Texas government to log and track user access when verification is done via government-issued ID. As the trial court explained, the law “runs the risk that the state can monitor when an adult views sexually explicit materials” and threatens to force individuals “to divulge specific details of their sexuality to the state government to gain access to certain speech.”

Additionally, a person who submits identifying information online can never be sure if websites will keep that information or how that information might be used or disclosed. EFF noted that HB 1181 does not require all parties who may have access to the data—such as third-party intermediaries, data brokers, or advertisers—to delete that data. This leaves users highly vulnerable to data breaches and other security harms.

Finally, EFF explained that millions of adult internet users would be entirely blocked from accessing protected speech online because they are not in possession of the required form of ID.

There are less restrictive alternatives to mass online age-gating that would still protect minors without substantially burdening adults. The trial court, in fact, outlined several of these alternatives in its decision, based on the factual evidence presented by the parties. The Fifth Circuit completely ignored these findings.

EFF has been a steadfast critic of efforts to censor the internet and burden access to online speech. We hope the Supreme Court agrees to hear this appeal and reverses the decision of the Fifth Circuit.


Tuesday 21st May 2024 10:01 pm

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