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Louisiana Is Getting Sued for Forcing Online Bookstores to Verify Readers' Ages

Naturally, the law could affect the entire internet.

by Clinton Nguyen
Nov 4 2015, 11:20pm

Image: Nathan Williams/Flickr

The American Civil Liberties Union and two independent New Orleans booksellers filed a lawsuit today alleging that a state law that forces booksellers to enact age verification systems online violates the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and places undue economic and technological burdens on the bookstores responsible for enacting them online.

The law forces those stores to verify users' ages online before showing them books considered "harmful to minors," much in the same way that liquor sites ask you if you're 21 before entering, and forums ask if you're 13 before registering. The suit alleges that the law also burdens free speech by regulating morality and violates due process and equal protection clauses.

"A failure to age-verify, even if no minor ever tries to access the material, is a crime that could lead to a $10,000 fine," the ACLU said in a press release. "Louisiana has a separate law that makes it a crime to lie when asked to acknowledge or attest to anything."

Even though everyone on the internet knows that asking for age is more a formality than an actual barrier (kids lie constantly), the lawsuit alleges that it puts bookstores in a pretty bad light and a pretty bad position technology-wise. To summarize some of their bigger points:

  1. The act lumps young adult books or "older minors" books (the sort that can be illuminating to 17-year-olds) along with the actual "harmful to minors" books. To compare it to movies, it's like equating a PG-13 movie with an NC-17 one.
  2. The act would make booksellers parse through millions of books on their sites to single out the harmful ones. Some of these systems aren't built to do this quickly. Some might even need to be hand-marked.
  3. The act could give parents the impression that booksellers are an "adult business."
  4. The act won't stop minors from accessing those books in other states.
  5. The standards for decency aren't well defined, so people from one community of Louisiana might object to what another community thinks is harmful to minors.
  6. The act weirdly enough applies not only to books, but the whole internet. If you sent a compromising tweet, for instance, and it didn't have an age attestation button, it could be in violation of the new law.

While some of these might seem like a stretch, the message is fairly clear: implementing age checking buttons on entire bookstore catalogues is much, much more complicated than legislators probably expected when they signed the act into law. And, of course, teens will find ways around everything. Pearl-clutching parents will have to find a better way around their kids finding objectionable literature, although, to be quite honest, books shouldn't really be their biggest concern.