by Caity Coyne

Lawmakers in the West Virginia House are moving forward with a bill to require certain websites that host “material harmful to minors” to verify the ages of their users with state-issued identification.

House Bill 4867 would apply to any commercial website where 33.33% of content on the site is classified as being “patently offensive with respect to minors” according to the judgment of an “average person.” The bill unanimously passed the House Judiciary Committee on Monday and now advances to the full chamber for a vote.

Del. Geno Chiarelli, R-Monongalia, is the sponsor of the bill. He told committee members that the 33.33% capacity set in the proposed code is a “commonly accepted threshold” for this type of legislation nationwide that helps separate certain kinds of websites.

“That’s sort of meant to act as a buffer for the types of websites this was meant to target,” Chiarelli said. “The specific example that I have is social media websites like X [Twitter] or Instagram. They do host adult content but that is not the intent of the website.”

Websites that meet the threshold for potentially offensive material — which is listed in detail in the bill’s text and includes specific body parts and sexual acts — would be required to create the means to verify a person’s age before they can access content in West Virginia.

Counsel for the House Judiciary said this would be done by having individuals use a “state-approved” mobile app that can access and download a copy of a person’s ID from a state agency, including the data strip on the back of licenses that are often used to verify their validity. That information would then have to be shared through some sort of verification process on the website to access it.

Any commercial website that fails to verify the ages of its audience despite hosting potentially explicit material could be subject to legal action, either from the state or an individual, regarding any harm that minors experience from being exposed to the material. This would include “psychological harm,” counsel said.

“The fact that they did not age verify and the child was able to access this material that is harmful to them, that would make [the commercial websites] liable,” counsel said.

Discussion on the bill in committee centered on how to possibly make the proposed law more specific. Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said the bill would likely not apply to content sites that offer mobile applications or applications on smart televisions or through a television provider. He referred to Pornhub, a popular adult entertainment website.

“An application would be different … you have to download their software, then the content. Something like that would have to have the age verification on its website,” Steele said. “So the Pornhub app itself would be exempt based upon the way this bill is written, right? Because Pornhub has both — they’ve got an app and they’ve got a website.”

Counsel said an amendment could provide more specificity to apply to those kinds of applications, but no amendment to do so was offered during Monday’s committee meeting.

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