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Eight US states are considering forcing phone manufacturers to install filters preventing users from viewing sexually explicit content – which could only be removed by using a passcode.

The states are looking to follow in the footsteps of Utah, which in 2021 passed a similar bill.

Utah‘s ruling cannot go into force, however, until at least five other states pass such laws, to prevent the phone companies from retaliating against the one state.

The legislation was first drawn up in 2019 by the teams at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and Protect Young Eyes.

In 2021, Apple introduced an optional filter which can be switched on to scan messages for nudity.

It will then blur any suspected nude images for people who had the filters turned on.

In the intervening years, politicians and advocates have asked for advice on how to get the legislation passed, said Benjamin Bull, the general counsel for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

‘I mean, almost on a daily basis, from constituents, from legislators,’ Bull told NBC News.

”What can we do? We’re desperate. Do you have a model bill? Can you help us?’

‘And we said: ‘as a matter of fact, we do.’

The bills are being weighed in Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee, Iowa, Idaho, Texas, and Montana.

Chris McKenna, founder and CEO of Protect Young Eyes, said: ‘The intention is meant to point toward the browsers and the [search] engines that have the filters already in place.’

But he said he would not object if the filters were applied in a wider context.

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‘You wouldn’t find me upset if they chose to turn that on for iMessage,’ he said.

Apple introduced some filters in 2021: now eight states are seeking to bring in laws making the filters automatic

Apple introduced some filters in 2021: now eight states are seeking to bring in laws making the filters automatic

Erin Walker, public policy director of Montana child safety organization Project STAND, told NBC News McKenna spoke about the draft legislation, and she then raised the idea with politicians in her state.

‘In 2017, we passed HB 247, which established that showing sexually explicit material to a child constitutes sexual abuse,’ she said.

‘And then in 2019, we passed a resolution declaring pornography to be a public health hazard in the state of Montana.’

Walker said that she saw the bill as part of a wider effort to rein in tech companies.

‘I think it’s just that Big Tech doesn’t want to be regulated,’ Walker said.

‘We have to convince legislators that there is an appropriate amount of regulation in every industry.’

Critics have questioned how the passcodes would be monitored, to ensure they are not accessed by young people.

In Montana, their bill – currently in draft form – states that a manufacturer is liable if ‘the manufacturer knowingly or in reckless disregard provides the passcode to a minor.’

Eight states want to put filters automatically on sexually explicit content on phones

Eight states want to put filters automatically on sexually explicit content on phones

Samir Jain, VP of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told NBC News that asking purchasers of tech for their age, and making them prove it, opens up a whole different can of worms.

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‘There are no restrictions as such on how providers can then use this data for other purposes. So even the sort of age verification aspect of this, I think, both creates burdens and gives rise to privacy concerns,’ Jain said.

He added that there were issues regarding freedom of expression and artistry.

‘I think we have to recognize that filters like these certainly with current technology are far from perfect,’ he said.

‘They can’t distinguish, you know, for example, nudity that’s prurient or of a sexual nature versus nudity that’s for artistic or other purposes, which the bills at least purport to exempt from regulation.’

Jain said he felt the filters should not be automatic, but should be made available for parents to modify as they saw fit.

‘What’s appropriate or useful for a teenager versus a six-year-old are quite different,’ he said.

‘That’s why I think the provision of different kinds of tools and capabilities that can then be tailored, depending on the circumstances makes a lot more sense than sort of a crude mandatory filtering.’

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