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Alabama’s HB167 nears vote: Will obscenity filters become law?

The bill would require every mobile device activated within the confines of Alabama to come pre-equipped with an “obscenity filter.”

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In a rush against the ticking clock of the legislative calendar, the controversial HB167, also known as the Alabama Children’s Device Protection Bill, inched closer to becoming a palpable reality.

On Wednesday, it snatched a favorable nod from the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee, positioning itself for a full Senate vote. The pressing question now lingers: With the legislative session’s dwindling days, will it even see the light of the Senate floor?

Crafted under the guise of child protection by Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville, with an assist from Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, HB167 mandates a bold and potentially overreaching move.

It requires every mobile phone or tablet activated within the confines of Alabama to come pre-equipped with an “obscenity filter” activated by default. While it parades the noble intention of shielding young eyes, the approach it takes is a sledgehammer to crack a nut—broad, clumsy, and inviting constitutional challenges due to its sweeping impact on free speech and access to information.

During a shockingly brief committee meeting — lasting a mere five minutes — the bill passed unanimously but not without its share of subdued drama. Sen. Vivian Figures raised pointed questions about the necessity of this legislation, especially considering the already-passed HB164, known as the “Porn ID” bill. Unfazed, Sells retorted with a dismissive comparison to similar measures adopted in Utah, arguing that previous efforts simply didn’t cut it.

Sells’ assertion that the bill places no burden on the business community strikes as particularly divorced from reality, according to manufacturers and telecommunication representatives. By potentially coercing major tech players like Amazon, Google, and Apple to modify operating systems for devices activated in Alabama, the bill doesn’t just stretch its legislative arms into boardrooms but also risks turning Alabama into a pariah state in tech circles. This could stymie the state’s strides in attracting tech investments and job creation, leaving it in a digital dustbin.

Josh Withrow, Fellow, Tech & Innovation Policy at R Street Institute, who spoke before the Alabama House Commerce and Small Business Committee, in March said, “Practically speaking, the bill would require mobile device manufacturers to run a modified operating system that builds a default-enabled content filter into every device sold in the U.S., because it applies to any such device ‘activated in this state.’ This filter must block obscene materials accessed via ‘internet browsers or search engines via mobile data networks’ or other internet connections.” He further stated, “Forcing manufacturers to modify their operating systems to build in a content filter that every adult would have to figure out how to disable to have full access to the internet is far from a less-restrictive method to prevent children from accessing obscene content.” He continued, “These government-mandated content filters will also compete with the existing, diverse market for parental online safety tools that already exist. This will doubtlessly undermine investment and innovation in the online safety market, as many parents are likely to default to just accepting and trusting whatever filters device manufacturers can get approved by the government.”

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The proposed one-size-fits-all solution is a technical quagmire, opponents say. No technology currently exists that can seamlessly filter all deemed inappropriate content across diverse devices and platforms — from smartphones to laptops, from social media apps to email services.

It’s not just a legislative overreach; it’s a technological fantasy, ignoring the plethora of commercial filtering solutions already at parents’ disposal, according to critics. 

As the clock runs down on this legislative session, the fate of HB167 hangs in the balance, its potential consequences looming large over Alabama’s technological and constitutional landscape. Will it advance to protect, or retreat in the face of practical and legal realities? The Senate’s next moves are crucial, and all eyes are on the chamber as it decides whether to adopt this contentious shield or cast it aside in favor of more measured, effective approaches to protecting the state’s youngest digital denizens.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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