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Can States Without Digital IDs Manage Age Verification Laws?

Laws requiring age verification for adult content and social media are spreading. That raises a question: How can companies and government reliably verify ages in the absence of centralized state digital ID systems?

A digital ID icon make of chrome-colored raised letters against a black background.
Age verification on the Internet has traditionally been an honor system — a single click of the “I’m over 18” box grants access, regardless of a user’s true age.

That’s changing. Since 2023, at least nine states have passed laws mandating websites containing more than 33.3 percent of content deemed “harmful to minors” must implement third-party age verification systems to prevent access by underage individuals. A majority of these laws target pornography websites, but recently, some states have introduced laws requiring social media companies to comply with similar standards.

However, most of the laws have had a different effect. In only one state, Louisiana, have some adult content producers actually implemented an age verification system. In other states, many companies have turned to geoblocking, and restricting access to their websites for all users in states with age verification laws to avoid hefty penalties.

What made age verification in Louisiana different from the other states? In part, a robust and well established digital ID program.
Image of three smartphones in a row with each showing a different page of Louisiana's digital ID application.
Louisiana's LA Wallet.
Louisiana passed Act 440 during the 2022 legislative session, making it a law that adult content websites were required to determine whether users are 18 or older before viewing content. According to the law, this could be verified by a digitized ID card or any public or private transactional data to verify the person attempting to access the information is at least 18 or older.

Aylo (formerly MindGeek), the company that owns PornHub, chose to use LA Wallet A-RAV, an anonymous remote age verification service, to conduct verifications. When an Internet user attempted to access their site after the law went into effect, a popup appeared asking the person to verify their age with LA Wallet, the state’s digital license app. The third-party app was created and is operated by Baton Rouge company Envoc.

“When they click ‘check my age,’ it gives a code, and that code you put into the LA Wallet. The only thing that a resident is sharing is if they are 18 or over,” said Calvin Fabre, president of Envoc, in an interview with Government Technology.

According to Fabre, LA Wallet has completed more than 2.9 million remote age verification sessions. He said it’s not possible to determine how many of those were users looking to access adult content, or exactly which sites use LA Wallet as a verification method, because the system doesn’t store that data.

“LA Wallet does not know the originating website, only that a compliance company is requesting an anonymous age challenge through the LA Wallet system,” said Fabre. “The LA Wallet system is agnostic to which website a visitor is using. Additionally, there is no direct connection between the content-providing website and the LA Wallet app. The conversation is brokered through a secure and non-logging infrastructure.”

Fabre provided enrollment numbers for LA Wallet to Government Technology, demonstrating that when the age verification law went into effect in January 2023, enrollments in LA Wallet more than doubled from the previous month, climbing from just more than 30,000 to more than 67,000.
According to Fabre, about 0.8 percent of age verification requests run through LA Wallet A-RAV returned an “under 18 response,” and in result, the adult content websites could block those users.

Following Louisiana’s implementation of the age verification law, at least eight other states passed their own versions of age verification laws for adult content providers. More than a dozen other states have introduced similar legislation.
However, a large majority of those states do not have active digital ID programs. The few that do have lower adoption rates than LA Wallet.

Mike Stabile, director of public affairs for the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, told Government Technology in an interview that the copy-cat legislation has left websites with few options.

“In Louisiana there was some component where you could conceivably try to do this, but most states don’t have a mobile ID,” said Stabile. “That was one of our issues, early on in legislation, was that we’re not quite sure how this is supposed to work.” 

Aylo shared with Government Technology that even with Louisiana’s established digital identity program, their data shows that many users are not comfortable sharing their personal information to access adult content. 

“In Louisiana last year, PornHub was one of the few sites to comply with the new law. Since then, our traffic in Louisiana dropped approximately 80 percent,” wrote a representative of Aylo. “These people did not stop looking for porn. They just migrated to darker corners of the Internet that don’t ask users to verify age, that don’t follow the law, that don’t take user safety seriously, and that often don’t even moderate content. In practice, the laws have just made the Internet more dangerous for adults and children.” 

Aylo and the Free Speech Coalition both expressed their hope that lawmakers will instead create legislation that would require on-device filters and parental control features rather than mandating users disclose sensitive data. 

”This technology exists, it’s widely used and it’s free. So it doesn’t impact the rights of legal adults to access this type of content,” Stabile said. “Legislators could put forward mandates that the device manufacturers have to turn this on for minors, maybe at point of sale. I think all of that is more effective and safer than having millions and millions of adults upload their IDs.”

Envoc is responding to privacy concerns with new technology. The company is working on a new app that uses facial age estimation — a combination of computer vision and machine learning tech to estimate a person’s age without identifying or recognizing any individual.

While work on that app is underway, Envoc is continuing to add new use cases to LA Wallet.

“There’s a whole lot of use cases here,” said Fabre. “I think we’re about three to four years ahead of most states in their implementation."
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.