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Image credit: Michał Ludwiczak

You can’t pay for 'the wall' with a porn tax

It's unconstitutional, and wouldn't make enough money.
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Michał Ludwiczak

An Arizona Republican is attempting to place a levy one of the world's most popular hobbies, especially if you've got any alone time. State senator Gail Griffin is pushing a bill that would force adults to pay a $20 online "porn tax." Revenue from the initiative would be channeled into building a wall along the state's southern border.

As reported by Ars Technica, House Bill 2444 proposes a state-wide blanket ban on all websites offering adult content. The bill outlines what would be blacklisted, including pornography, sites that "facilitate prostitution," revenge porn and obscenity. Users would be able to have access to those pages restored if they can prove that they're an adult and pay the fee.

Sadly, the law is poorly drafted. It suggests that paying the fee will allow them access to illegal content, like revenge porn. In Arizona, the publication of revenge porn is already a felony that can carry a jail term of up to six months. And, in the unlikely event the bill was enacted, the state could leave itself open to charges of profiting from criminality.

The bill then outlines how the revenue would be placed in a fund, administered by the head of Arizona's Commerce Authority. They would be tasked with handing out grants for projects that "uphold community standards of decency." The most crucial of which, apparently, is the construction of a wall between Arizona and Mexico, for reasons.

Many believe the bill was authored by "anti-porn troll" Chris Sevier, who has pushed similar projects. BoingBoing says that Sevier has built a career "convincing grandstanding Republican state lawmakers to introduce doomed, unconstitutional porn tax laws." In 2014, Sevier, who uses a number of pseudonyms, unsuccessfully attempted to marry his computer as part of a series of protests against same-sex marriage, which he believes is unnatural. And in 2017, The Daily Beast reported that he was charged with stalking and harassing a minor.

Motherboard believes that the bill is likely to fail, in the same way Sevier's other bills have in Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Utah, Rhode Island and South Carolina. One clear hurdle would be that the law contravenes the first amendment. In the wake of FOSTA/SESTA, the first amendment is seen as less of an impediment to some lawmakers now. The EFF, amongst others, protested that the anti-trafficking bill amounted to government censorship, but its objections were ignored.

John Stagliano, the CEO of adult studio Evil Angel, was similarly dismissive of the plan, saying that "politically unpopular industries" are often the target of lawmakers. He cited other businesses that could also be targeted, including payday loan companies, tobacco, booze and medical marijuana. Mike Stabile, a representative from the Free Speech Coalition told the Arizona Mirror that the move is "clearly unconstitutional."

Projects with wooly, apparently high-minded goals that attempt to right some digital wrong have rarely succeeded. Canada attempted, in 2003 and 2013, to levy an "iPod Tax," on MP3 players to match similar taxes on blank media. The thinking went that since those devices could be used to enable piracy, a fund should be set up to compensate copyright holders. A few years later, and the country tried to mess with the import tariff situation to punish importers of those devices.

Both attempts failed, however, since there was no clear link between what was being taxed, and the taxation itself. A court found the initial tax illegal, while the latter was rolled back after a year, and all fees were returned to importers.

Attempts to shut down large portions of the internet to prevent people accessing adult content also rarely work. In 2018, Nepal blocked a number of adult websites, including xHamster, which saw visitor numbers from the country crater. Less than ten days later, and traffic levels had returned to almost the same numbers they were before the ban. The site said that users simply opted to use VPNs, proxies and alternative networks (like Tor) to get online.

"It's a tax on computer buyers," xHamster's Alex Hawkins told Engadget, creating a filter that "users would have to pay to remove in order to access the free internet." Hawkins also railed against the notion that the internet would be limited to "what's approved by a government censor." The executive said that the proposal would create an "ineffectual internet wall," and that he "couldn't think of anything that smacks less of liberty."

Hawkins also said that xHamster could pay the $20 to reimburse users for the tax in a show of solidarity with the state's internet users. The company also released statistics showing how adult content views have fallen in countries like China and Saudi Arabia as censorship tightens. "Do we really want to have the US go down that road as well?" he added.

The UK is currently attempting to put all adult content behind a wall that only adults can access. The Digital Economy Act made provision for such a system, whereby people would verify their age in order to gain access to the material. It's not clear yet if people would be required to pay, but it's likely to be far less than Senator Griffin's proposed $20 fee. The project has, however, been postponed several times due to the difficulties in implementing such a system.

How much money would Sevier and Griffin's boondoggle generate for the state? If it was feasible to implement, and people wouldn't circumvent it, how much would be raised for this wall? Using data from the US Census, if all of Arizona's 4.27 million 18-to-65-year-olds watched porn and paid, it would rake in a maximum of $85 million.

That's an optimistic figure, too, since Pornhub says that 72 percent of US porn watchers are male. In reality, the figure may be anything up to half of that price, which would also have to cover the cost of administering the system and paying for monitoring staff. According to Fox News, a US-Mexico border wall cost an estimated $25 billion, making Arizona's hypothetical contribution a rounding error.

After training to be an intellectual property lawyer, Dan abandoned a promising career in financial services to sit at home and play with gadgets. He lives in Norwich, U.K., with his wife, his books and far too many opinions on British TV comedy. One day, if he's very, very lucky, he'll live out his dream to become the executive producer of Doctor Who before retiring to Radio 4.

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