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Speaker Mike Johnson's use of "Covenant Eyes" is even worse than it looks
The Christian "shameware" app was bad enough. The way Mike Johnson uses it raises even more questions.
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Over the weekend, an old video surfaced of Speaker of the House Mike Johnson talking about the accountability techniques he and his son use to avoid watching adult content online. As Rolling Stone put it, Johnson admitted they “monitor each other’s porn intake.”
The comment was made during a “War on Technology” panel discussion in October of 2022 at Cypress Baptist Church in Benton, Louisiana. Johnson, then a congressman, spoke about how he installed software on his computer called “Covenant Eyes” in order to maintain a level of accountability, and he urged others to do the same.
“It scans all the activity on your phone, or your devices, your laptop, what have you; we do all of it,” Johnson told the panel about the app.
“It sends a report to your accountability partner. My accountability partner right now is Jack, my son. He’s 17. So he and I get a report about all the things that are on our phones, all of our devices, once a week. If anything objectionable comes up, your accountability partner gets an immediate notice. I’m proud to tell ya, my son has got a clean slate.”
Nothing bonds a father and son like knowing what porn the other might be watching…
(By the way, the full sermon was available on YouTube last night, but the church has since removed the video from public view. They also deleted a Facebook link about it. Meanwhile, Mike Johnson has removed an old referral link to Covenant Eyes from his Facebook page. A slightly longer clip of Johnson’s comments can be seen here.)
While it makes sense for a parent to want to know what their kids are doing online, this is nothing more than hovering over your children’s browser history to make sure their curiosity doesn’t go too far.
The focus may be on adult videos, but it extends far beyond that in conservative Christian circles. They don’t want kids learning about anything that may go against their religious beliefs. What if children are trying to make sense of their same-sex attractions? Forget porn; any visit to a website affirming their sexual orientation could be seen by this software as a red flag. In a WIRED article last year, one woman said she was forced to talk to her mother and pastor after similar software revealed she had “Wikipedia’d an article about atheism.” The same article focused on a church that used a “shameware” app to spy on pretty much everything their staff did online, including one employee’s “Amazon purchases, articles he read, and even which friends’ accounts he looked at on Instagram.”
Despite the Big Brother vibe of it all, Covenant Eyes is very popular in Christian circles, having been downloaded over 100,000 times.
It’s one thing if you believe you have a problem and you want someone else to hold you accountable. This app can work in those situations and it’s not a unique premise at all, no different than when someone struggling with alcohol addiction calls up a partner when he feels an urge to drink. But if your church believes you need a nanny because you’re curious about atheism, or sex, or anything else, you’re in danger.
While many people on Twitter/X found Johnson’s words creepy, they were perfectly in line with everything else we’ve come to learn about Johnson since he took over the speakership, including his support for “covenant marriages,” which makes it harder for a couple that’s no longer in love to get divorced.
The clip was the setup to countless jokes about how weird white evangelicals are when it comes to “purity” and how Republicans have, again, failed the “normal person challenge.” It also raised a valid concern about how white evangelicals’ insistence that men need to be protected from themselves often leads to them blaming women for what men do. There’s no shortage of stories in which pastors respond to an allegation of sexual assault by asking, “Well, what was she wearing?”
I would call your attention, though, to a few important things I haven’t seen discussed much in the wake of this clip going viral.
1. Covenant Eyes isn’t even effective.
Of all the lurid details we heard during the Joshua Duggar trial, before he was sentenced to over 12 years in prison for downloading and possessing illicit images of child sexual abuse, one of the most surprising involved Covenant Eyes.
Duggar had the program installed on his work computer, personal computer, and phone so his wife could check that he wasn’t looking at any sort of pornography. During his trial, however, we learned that Duggar found a workaround: He installed a Linux partition that basically allowed him to use his computer in a way that wasn’t seen by Covenant Eyes. The software didn’t catch any of the illegal things he did.
And that’s before we get into the potential security concerns of third party servers recording what the Speaker may be doing online.
2. It’s messed up that Johnson’s accountability partner is his son.
It’s not that weird if Johnson is using Covenant Eyes to monitor his son’s internet use. But it’s extremely strange that Johnson’s son was monitoring him.
The congressman made it sound like the mutual oversight was a way to show he’s practicing what he’s preaching. Still, Johnson’s accountability partner should be his wife, or a church leader, or some other adult, not a child who lives in his house. Suppose Johnson was looking at adult websites; the software giving the specifics to his own son could be traumatizing.
That sort of burden shouldn’t be placed upon a child.
3. What Johnson said later was even more damning.
Immediately after he spoke about his son’s “clean slate,” Johnson said that the software had recently sent him a “blurred picture” that his son had been caught looking at. It was marked as “questionable.”
When Johnson clicked on the image to un-blur it, however, he saw that it was nothing more than two women… having a normal discussion.
… It’s two middle-aged teachers talking. [My son] was in the Bossier youth leadership thing, and so he was having a dialogue, as a group, with these women.
But it caught it! Because here's two women talking to my son, right?
The software alerted Mike Johnson that his son was chatting with two women online in a perfectly appropriate way. Instead of concluding that the program wrongly jumps on false positives, he touted this as proof of how good the software is.
This is essentially the same problem that plagued Mike Pence when it came to following the Billy Graham rule. Both men said they avoided being alone with a woman who wasn’t their wife because the optics were bad, because it could lead to infidelity, and because they wanted to avoid false allegations. They ignored the fact that powerful men refusing to be alone with women in a professional capacity hurts women who work hard to attain similar positions of power. They treated working relationships like personal ones, implying that sex was always a possibility.
Mike Johnson’s son was just talking with two women but the software was programmed to think something improper could be happening. Imagine what lesson that teaches the son: You’re better off avoiding those situations even if they’re appropriate. Just work with other men. That’s the solution to everything.
This is why the software is so damn laughable. Not only are there ways to get around the code that monitors your porn viewing (or, in Josh Duggar’s case, something much worse), it creates new problems even when none are present.
The Christians using Covenant Eyes think they need to be babysat because they might use the internet like… pretty much everyone else. It shows you just how controlling and harmful a Christian environment like Mike Johnson’s can be.
And if the Senate and presidency fall into Republicans’ hands after the 2024 election, Johnson will be one step closer to creating that environment for all of us.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)
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