Online porn restrictions are leading to a VPN boom

Internet users in a handful of states across the US are finding it more difficult to browse parts of the web anonymously. Over a dozen states, including Texas and Louisiana, have enacted legislation forcing Pornhub and other purveyors of streaming online adult videos to verify the identities of its users to ensure children and teens aren’t accessing “sexual material harmful to minors.” Elsewhere, in states like Florida, lawmakers have introduced so-called online parental consent laws that would limit or ban underage users from accessing social media services over claims they cause psychological harm. In each case, lawmakers want online platforms to collect government-IDs from users or have them submit to third-party age verification methods to ensure they are indeed adults.

But determining whether or not kids and teens are actually accessing those sites means platforms have no choice but to verify the ages of all users accessing their sites, minor or otherwise. Adult porn viewers, who could previously dip in and out of websites with a relative degree of anonymity, may now fear having their government name and photograph at arms length away from their last Pornhub search query. At the same time, critics of the new laws worry some far-right, religiously conservative lawmakers could broadly interpret “adult” material to include content from LGBTQ+ creators or other people from marginalized groups who rely on the internet for a sense of community. In that scenario, teens from abusive or difficult family structures could find themselves shut out from support structures online. 

Experts speaking with PopSci say there are signs internet users in many of these states are turning to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access otherwise blocked materials. Leading VPN provider Top10 VPN claims demand from VPN services jumped 275% on March 15, the same day Pornhub cut off access in Texas. The site says demand for VPNs similarly surged by 210% the day after a similar law took effect in Louisiana last year. ExpressVPN, another popular VPN provider, told PopSci it saw increased web traffic to its site the day anti-porn, online age verification bills took effect in seven out of eight states. 

“Wherever U.S. lawmakers have imposed age verification on internet users trying to access adult content online over the past 12 months, there has been a clear trend in the corresponding surges in demand for VPNs,” Top10 VPN Head of Research Simon Migliano told PopSci. In the most extreme case, Migliano claims Top10 VPN saw demand for the technology jolt up 847% the day the state’s new laws came into effect.

How are VPNs being used?

VPNs, which date back to the mid 1990s, create an encrypted tunnel for user’s data and can make it appear as if their computer is based in a different geographical location. Digital streaming viewers often use this VPN masking technology to access shows restricted in certain markets and blacked out sports events. Others view VPNs as useful tools for adding layers of security to private communications. That same technology has, for years, been used by whistleblowers, journalists, and political dissidents worldwide to bolster their anonymity online, especially in authoritarian countries. 

“A VPN is an effective tool for circumventing any kind of internet censorship, as it allows users to access the restricted content via an IP address from a location under a different jurisdiction from their own,” Migliano said. 

American Public University and American Military University Cybersecurity Department Chair Andre Slonopas credits VPN providers with helping global internet users maintain anonymity and become a type of “digital migrant” capable of shifting between non-localized regions of the internet.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to hear other ideas, opinions, learn about worldviews and connect with humans on a different level,” Slonopas told PopSci.

Though commonly used to bypass content restrictions in other countries, Center for Democracy and Technology Vice President of Policy Samir Jain says their apparent use by Americans to sidestep domestic content restrictions feels “relatively new.” That sudden shift, Jain said, owes itself partly to the language of these new laws which would have previously struggled to stand up to legal scrutiny. Jain, whose organization signed onto an amicus’s brief calling on a court to block the Texas law, said he wasn’t surprised users from affected areas states appeared to be seeking out VPNs. 

“If you provide a government ID to prove you are in effect no longer anonymous,” Center for Democracy and Technology Vice President of Policy Samir Jain told PopSci. “If people no longer feel like they can do that [access information anonymously] that infringes on their First Amendment expression right.”

ExpressVPN Privacy Advocate Lauren Hendry Parsons echoed that sentiment. 

“We know that when legislators restrict consumer access to services like porn, citizens still find a way to access it,” Hendry Parsons told PopSci. “There is absolutely a middle ground to be found that leans on third-party cooperation instead of limiting consumer rights.”

How are platforms responding to the new laws?

As of writing, seven mostly Republican-led states have passed some form of legislation relying on age-verification to prevent minors from accessing pornographic material. Nearly all of these so-called “age-gating” bills are copy-cat versions of a pioneering Louisiana legislation, which passed in 2022 and took effect early last year. The Verge estimates the Louisiana bill inspired at least 17 copycat bills, a handful of which are on their way to becoming laws. In Texas, sites found in violation of its law could face penalties of up to $10,000 per day. 

Some adult content sites like Pornhub have opted to block IP addresses originating from states with these new laws in order to avoid running afoul of the laws. Last month, internet users in Texas attempting to access the world’s largest purveyor of online adult video content were greeted instead with a 10 paragraph note from the company explaining its opposition to the state’s “ineffective, haphazard, and dangerous” law. Pornhub has similarly restricted access to users from half a dozen other states with similar age verification laws. In addition to wanting to steer clear of penalties, experts told PopSci platforms also oppose the laws because they don’t want to be responsible for collecting and maintaining torrents of sensitive users’ data that could pose a ripe target for cybercriminals.

“Age verification systems collect a huge amount of data, not only the personal information from each ID but also a record of each and every authentication made—essentially any site you access that features adult content,” Hendry Parsons said. “Combined with the data profiling social media companies create about their users, this treasure trove of personal information is a perfect target for bad actors.”

Rising VPN use could attract new lawmaker scrutiny

US internet users are reportedly using VPNs to access non-porn related material as well. College students around the country are reportedly already using VPNs to get around efforts from some universities to ban TikTok on campus networks. In Montana, where lawmakers passed a first-of-its kind statewide TikTok ban, creators have been preparing to similarly use the technology to stay connected to their followers. Lawmakers interested in restricting popular online content of various kinds will inevitably find themselves running into a VPN service willing to offer users an escape tunnel. 

But a continued uptick in VPN to access blocked risks inviting unintended consequences. Internet users appearing to use VPNs to blatantly run afoul of new legislation could incentivize lawmakers to clamp down on the technology. Some of the anti-porn laws, like the one enacted in Utah, already possess language explicitly prohibiting online platforms from letting minors “change or bypass restrictions on access.” Digital rights activists fear other recently proposed legislation aimed at limiting US user access to foreign apps may include provisions in it that would criminalize the use of VPNs.

Jain, from the Center for Democracy and Technology, acknowledged those concerns but said new laws banning criminalizing or restricting VPNs could do more harm than good and may face constitutional legal challenges. As for the new wave of laws appearing to fuel the rise in American VPN adoption, Jain said debates over one of those laws could eventually make its way up to the Supreme Court. 

“There are a lot of legitimate reasons to use VPNs to protect your privacy and anonymity,” Jain said.