utah block porn content filter

Utah Wants To Block Porn On All Devices Statewide...Just How Would This Actually Work?

Utah has always been famous for its ski slopes, large LDS presence, and pioneer mentality. It has consistently been ranked one of the highest states for quality of living, but also has a reputation for a more unsavory ranking. Utah has, since 2009, been ranked as #1 in the nation for porn subscriptions

In 2016 Utah’s governor, Gary Herbert,  officially declared porn addiction a “public health crisis.” This resolution didn’t have any practical impact. Porn is still legal and accessible throughout Utah, but it signaled a state-level commitment to curbing porn consumption and studying what they perceived to be the negative effects of porn, among which are “decreasing young mens’ desire to marry.”

Now in 2021, Utah’s state legislature has passed a law that will require all devices sold or activated in the state to come with a built-in porn-blocker. 

Measure HB72 states that every tablet and smartphone sold in the state after January 1st, 2022 should come with a preinstalled content filter capable of "blocking material that is harmful to minors."

The measure is intended to protect kids from accessing inappropriate content and can be bypassed by parents. 

Instead of discussing the “why” behind universal porn-blocking, we’re here to discuss the “how.” 

How exactly would a single state enact porn blocking on millions of devices?

There are 3.36 million Utahns. As one of the youngest states, only about half of their population is over 18—a population that we expect to own multiple connected devices such as a computers, smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, and gaming consoles. Additionally, another 400,000 Utahns are between 10-18, probably the age group that legislators are thinking of in their crusade to “think of the children.” So our population of potential users for whom we need to block porn is around 2M. That’s roughly 60% of all Utahns.

In 2017, the average American owned three connected devices. In 2020 that’s up to 10, with 7 of those having screens. So that’s 7 screens per Utahn which need blocking software. 

That amounts to roughly 14,000,000 connected devices that would require content filtering software if sold today. How does Utah expect to block porn on 14,000,000 unique devices?

SafeSearch - Blocking porn via browser apps 

The first line of defense for parents (or politicians) looking to keep their kids (or constituents) from accessing inappropriate content is usually enforcing SafeSearch. This is done in the browser settings (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.). This prevents inappropriate content from popping up in search results (both text and image) but these filters would have to be installed on every possible browsing tool a Utahn could use. Though most phones come pre-installed with a primary browser, it is easy to download new apps from the App Store. 

Additionally, SafeSearch doesn’t actually prevent anyone from accessing porn because it still allows direct access to porn sites by typing in the URL. The content is not filtered at the domain level. 

If enabling SafeSearch was identified as the easiest way to block porn on devices, it would need to be enabled as a default setting in the app. In order to achieve this, each app would need to use geo-location to determine if the user is in Utah so that they install with the more stringent settings. The development lift would be considerable, it would require significant coordination between multiple search applications, and it would be easily bypassed by anyone who can type pornhub.com into the search bar.

Effectiveness: Low

Difficulty: High

Operating systems - Blocking porn via Windows or MacOS

Both PC’s and Macs have parental controls that can be easily configured in the Settings. Parents set a PIN that they use to disallow inappropriate content. This is fairly effective at allowing parents to monitor content and screentime, however kids today are pretty savvy. Teenagers can sideload apps outside of Google or Apple’s control, browse in incognito mode, and use VPNs. There are around 31,000,000 search results for “how to get around MacOS parental controls.”

However, Utah’s proposed law is not just for kids, it’s for all devices sold, and the law states that the devices must be configured to block pornography upon sale. So every device would need parental controls pre-installed, with easy directions for adults to deactivate the controls for their own internet browsing. The seller of the software could do this manually before handing over each physical device, but hours of training and lost sales-time would be significant. 

Lastly, Apple has already signaled in its ongoing battle with the FBI that they have no intention of reneging on their stated policies just because of government pressure. They cracked down by removing 11 of the 17 most commonly used parental control apps in 2019. Simply put, Apple wants you using their devices, as much as possible, no matter what you’re doing, and believes strongly in user privacy.

With Apple representing more than half of the smartphone and tablet market in Utah, their participation would be crucial to ensure effectiveness at both the OS and browser level. 

Effectiveness: Medium

Difficulty: High

DNS-Level Security - Blocking porn via DNS

Blocking adult content at the DNS level is, by far, the most comprehensive and effective solution that could be undertaken to truly stop Utahns from accessing the inappropriate content that (apparently) makes them abandon their families and decide not to marry. Our DNS tools categorize sites in real time and block porn and malicious content.

DNS-level content filtering is not typically done at the device level, it is done at the network level. This is what makes it so much more difficult to bypass, and an ideal solution for schools, companies, or households that want to fully restrict access to porn.

Utah could add this DNS-level security to public WiFi, networks at schools and colleges, and as an option via their internet providers to allow for easier global opt-in. This is a more common-sense approach as it would be done all through negotiations with internet services providers and their local administrators, and would effectively block porn across all devices accessing the internet through on their network.

Blocking content at the ISP level would actually be the one option where Utah could essentially “flip a switch” and start to block porn on any existing devices in addition to any new ones on the market.

But the wording in Measure HB72 makes it seem like Utah is more interested in device filtering. This is something we do at DNSFilter with our Roaming Clients, but this choice is much more difficult to deploy though it would undoubtedly be the most effective way.

A project of this magnitude would require a lot of work (and customization) with home network equipment manufacturers like Amazon, Linksys, and Netgear plus mobile device manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, Google, and LG.  All of these devices would need to be loaded with content filtering prior to purchase. At DNSFilter, we’ve actually worked with some devices manufacturers so our content filtering is a default part of their product. 

The timeline for a project like this can be anywhere from 6 months to two years, depending on the existing infrastructure of both the device manufacturer and the DNS protection provider. There’s also a learning curve. We’ve experienced this with our clients. They’re learning about DNS throughout the entire process of an integration, and that takes time. Sometimes early on in the process the manufacturer won’t know the right question to ask because they’re not familiar enough with how DNS works yet.

There are also questions around UI and UX that need to be answered like:

  • What will users see when they attempt to access porn?
  • Will users (or their parents) have access to the content filtering data?
  • What measures will be built into the deployment so users cannot bypass content filtering?

But this isn’t one manufacturer working on a single content filtering deployment project. This is a dozen or more. Each company will have its own unique expectations for the project, QA requirements, and launch programs. The likelihood that every single manufacturer is equipped to block porn by January 1, 2022 is nearly impossible.

That isn’t even mentioning the possibility that Utahns could purchase devices made outside the U.S. that likely won’t be beholden to Utah’s policy. Unless, of course, Utah was interested in working with any and all manufacturers worldwide.

But then there’s a question of what is the budget for enforcing this project? The man hours and skill required to execute an integration like this are tremendous.

Effectiveness: High

Difficulty: High

So what does Utah actually think they’re going to accomplish?

The short answer is nothing. The bill states that it will only go into effect if five other states pass similar laws. Although 15 states, including Montana, Florida, and Mississippi have also declared porn a public health crisis, none of them have taken legislative measures to actually restrict access to porn.

No set fine has been proposed with manufacturers who don’t comply with the new bill, but it does mention penalties for companies who allow children to access “harmful material” on that device. The bill is likely political posturing in the heavily LDS state.

And a nine-month timeline, for rollout on January 1, 2022 is completely unrealistic from a technical perspective. Development, rollout, testing, and deployment of robust, DNS-level content filtering on hundreds of device types would take several years and coordination from multiple manufacturers and software providers.

A rising interest in content filtering

Porn is not the only type of content that states, organizations, businesses, and parents want filtered. 

Hate content, especially in the wake of racially motivated crimes, the banning of misogynistic forums, and the January 6th insurrection, is another large bucket of websites which have historically been under-categorized by parental control tools. 

For example, the app Parler had been around since 2018, categorized as just another social networking site. But huge spikes in hate speech and fake news on the platform occurred shortly after the election. Dynamic content-filtering that is consistently scanning the internet and re-evaluating the appropriateness of sites is key, particularly in these quickly evolving categories, allowing admins to block hate content.

And as many businesses transition to work-from-home, or a hybrid model, forcing employees to stay focused is key. 64% of employees say they browse non-work-related sites during the workday, and this number has likely skyrocketed with less monitoring, and lack of widely deployed roaming clients. 46% of employees have also reported that they have job-hunted for a new gig on their current employer’s time, so blocking sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor can help with employee retention, or at least ensure you’re not paying them to find their next job. 

So while we don’t think Utah’s porn ban means much outside of virtue signaling by a conservative state, we think the interest in blocking content, content filtering, and allowing people greater control over what they can access on the internet is a trend worth watching. We also strongly believe that DNS filtering, and blocking access to content via AI, will continue to be the most effective and foolproof way to do it.

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