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Aug 9, 2023Liked by Charles Fain Lehman

Great essay, thank you

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So the idea is that actually, inefficiencies in the porn market are good because then there is less porn consumption, and so the standard libertarian critique does not apply. This may be true generally, but I really doubt that it does here, because I don't think your treatment of Sanchez's arguments succeeds.

A friction to demand a vice may generally be good, but the friction here is truly trivial. I strongly doubt that the main target of this regulation -- adolescents -- will be deterred in the slightest by a requirement to use a VPN. This is just objectively not hard. VPN companies have an incentive to make it as easy as possible. And VPN demand has soared after these regulations are imposed.

Furthermore, there are dimensions to porn site size that you don't address. Remember a few years ago when it came out that Pornhub was littered with non-consensual content, sometimes depicting minors? Facing an existential crisis, they took action to clean up their site. I don't know how effective it was, but I do know that other free sites didn't face the same scrutiny. Being a large and dominant firm, pornhub has the largest incentive to provide a less harmful product.

I don't dispute that pron consumption is bad (on the current margin) nor do I dispute that introducing inefficiencies can improve welfare. But the VPN friction is so small and you don't engage with one of the biggest sources of harm related to online porn. As a result, Sanchez is still completely correct. And more broadly, these regulations seem more like an effort for anti porn legislators to signal what side they are in than to actually do something, using children as a rallying cry without actually doing anything to benefit children -- where have I seen this before?

Finally, it should be possible to create decentralized age verification technology, but certainly not by state legislature fiat. It will require the big tech companies to wake up and realize there is a problem, and actually deploy decentralized technology to a socially beneficial end.

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The claim of no effect is belied by the figures reported in the Politico piece, and cited at the start of my essay. An 80% decline in traffic seems like a large effect.

Ceteris paribus, greater levels of regulation should force firm agglomeration as compliance costs rise. If other free sites are *in violation of the law*, it is much easier to sink them with even simple state AG investigations and lawsuits than it is to sink the apparently more legally compliant PornHub.

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If people are using VPNs to seem like they're in different states, wouldn't that look like drop in traffic from those states? I don't think that many people are using VPNs, but I don't think the "figures" show that.

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State AGs could and maybe should look at other porn sites to determine whether they are violating the law. I hope this would not be an exact repeat of the pornhub episode, where pressure on credit card companies put the incomes of sex workers in jeopardy, but perhaps this would be for the best.

More importantly, a large decline in traffic to porn sites in these states is perfectly consistent with all of this traffic simply being displaced to other localities through VPNs. The point is to obfuscate the location so that the regulations don't apply, and these traffic figures would also be afflicted. We can to some extent observe that interest in VPNs in Utah spiked when the regulation came into effect, though I don't believe that data necessary to test how much traffic is simply diverted exists. https://www.techradar.com/news/porn-vpn-searches-soar-in-utah-amid-age-verification-bill

A related point that I forgot to make is that accessing a VPN can be as simple as changing your web browser. A number of small privacy-oriented browsers integrate VPNs, as does the more popular Opera, and Firefox is piloting a built in VPN in the US. https://financesonline.com/best-online-browsers-with-vpn/

This is why I would expect these regulations as written to do nothing. The modern web is in many ways oriented towards privacy and anonymity. Regulations that have teeth would require a radical departure that would not have political support. The circle can be squared with decentralized technology, but this cannot be created and deployed by fiat from moral virtue signalers.

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