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Websites generally want to prevent minors from viewing 18+ content, but if a minor does access the content, is the minor legally responsible or is the website legally responsible, and what are the legal consequences? What measures is the website legally required to take? These are a few examples to consider:

  • A website only shows a warning against 18+ content on its home page, but fails to show it on any subpages (no account needs to be created to view the content).
  • A website says in its Terms of Service that viewers must be age 18 or older, but does not show any warnings, expecting users to check the Terms and leave immediately if the user is a minor. The home page itself does not have 18+ content.
  • A website shows an 18+ warning before viewing content and requires users to click that they are at least 18 years old and would like to view 18+ content.
  • A website requires users to create an account and provide their birthdate, but does not require an actual ID, before viewing 18+ content.

No financial transactions take place.

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  • Who is required to prevent underage alcohol sales and consumption, the bar or the punter? Same issue, just in terms people understand better.
    – Moo
    May 24 at 21:18
  • @Moo no, not the same issue unless the Internet access is on devices made available to the general public (such as those in Internet cafes). If parents own the devices, the issues are different because the transactions are made by the parents rather than by the minors themselves.
    – grovkin
    May 25 at 0:24
  • @Moo You can probably enter an 18+ site just by clicking a button saying that you are old enough, but if you go into a bar and say that you are age 21 and the bar makes no attempt to check ID, I would think that the bar may be liable. Also, no financial transactions are occurring in the scenario described above. May 25 at 0:56
  • @grovkin This scenario assumes no money is transferred, so there are no "transactions". May 25 at 1:01
  • @joseph-parsons pointless click-through affirmations are starting to become very inadequate in new laws in many countries - they offer no actual barrier, so they offer no actual protection now. They are exactly the equivalent of the barman asking the punter "are you legally allowed to buy alcohol" without checking ID.
    – Moo
    May 25 at 2:09
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A website can arbitrarily decide that it will not allow access to any person under 18. The minor violating the TOS in that case would bear whatever the legal consequences fall upon them, by being sued by the website owner.

For most if not all cases of so-called "18+" content, the restriction relates to laws regarding dissemination of obscene materials to minors. There are various state laws against disseminating obscene material to anyone, and additionally, federal laws against disseminating obscene materials to minors, see 47 USC 223(d). It is extremely unclear what constitutes "obscene" material (this is determined by the jury), so while porn may be legal, there is a risk in allowing a minor to view porn, because there is an increased risk that content that is deemed to be legal to show to an adult may be deemed obscene when shown to a minor. Out of an abundance of caution, a website operator may therefore try to filter out minors from the viewing audience.

Here is the logical flow of the relevant federal law. 1: A website cannot send obscene material to a minor. 2: Nor can they make it available for a minor to see. However, both provisions are subject to a "knowingly" provision, thus accidentally making obscene material available is not a violation of the law. Additionally, subsection (e)(5) provides defenses, one that the person

has taken, in good faith, reasonable, effective, and appropriate actions under the circumstances to restrict or prevent access by minors to a communication specified in such subsections, which may involve any appropriate measures to restrict minors from such communications, including any method which is feasible under available technology

or

has restricted access to such communication by requiring use of a verified credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number

And furthermore, (6):

The Commission may describe measures which are reasonable, effective, and appropriate to restrict access to prohibited communications under subsection (d).

(The "Commission" is the FCC). There are apparently no such regulations.

There are related laws such as 18 USC 1470 which criminalize transferring obscene material to anyone under age 16, which also has a "knowingly" requirement. There are laws against tricking children into viewing "harmful" content by using misleading names, but the law also says that "a word or digital image that clearly indicates the sexual content of the site, such as 'sex' or 'porn', is not misleading".

In short, in a hypothetical cases where some content is labeled "18+", there are no legal consequences for the website operator unless the material is actually deemed to be obscene. In that case, the operator would have to make a reasonable attempt to exclude minors, such as by requiring a customer to be 18+ to view the site.

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  • I think these laws were passed before Internet filters existed. And the existence of such filters made them legally moot.
    – grovkin
    May 25 at 0:22
  • "For most if not all cases of so-called "18+" content, the restriction relates to laws regarding dissemination of obscene materials to minors" Not true. Laws can and do prohibit furnishing non-obscene but sexual content to minors that adults have a protected right toi receive. May 25 at 0:27
  • Suppose that the material is deemed to be obscene. What would "a reasonable attempt" be (which of the bullet point examples would be considered a reasonable attempt)? May 25 at 0:59
  • @DavidSiegel the warnings, which can be easily bypassed by lying, don't exclusively serve the purpose of gate-keeping. They also allow for Internet filters on devices to block such content. Failure to install filters on personal devices purchased by parents is a personal choice. Again, the burden for creating blocks, at the point of origination of content, only existed at the time when the Internet filters were not available.
    – grovkin
    May 25 at 5:09
  • @grovkin the various laws have not, as far as I know, changed. Whatever burdens they imposed, they still impose. ,The possible availability of filters (which is far from recent) is not, I think legally significant at all. I have not yet researched the laws to see what burdens they impose, and then there is the question of decisions to enforce such laws as exist. May 25 at 5:25

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