I tried Mike Johnson’s favorite anti-porn app. It didn’t go well

<span>Illustration: J Scott Applewhite/AP</span>
Illustration: J Scott Applewhite/AP

The first thing to say about Covenant Eyes, the anti-porn phone app used by House speaker Mike Johnson, is that it did change my relationship with pornography.

It dramatically increased the amount of time I spent thinking about it.

The word “porn” is splashed absolutely everywhere across, where you can create an account and download the app. It appears 18 times on the home page alone. The message isn’t positive – “porn creates shame”, “shame fuels porn usage” – but the effect is unavoidable: if porn wasn’t on your mind before you visited Covenant Eyes (unlikely), it sure will be after.

Turning website visitors into horndogs isn’t quite in Covenant Eyes’ mission statement. The app, which Johnson said he and his family had been using for “a long time”, promises to help people “discover the freedom of living porn-free”, essentially through a shame-oriented method of sending all your phone activity to a designated accountability partner.

There is no suggestion that Johnson, who is second in line to the presidency, consumes a problematic amount of pornography. But it makes sense that the Republican, an outspoken Christian who has described his worldview as “go pick up a Bible”, would be drawn to the app, given Covenant Eyes is also keen on religion. Looking at the reviews, its users seem to be, too.

“Every Christian man should use it” is one review highlighted on the home page.

“The accountability that Covenant Eyes provides helps me in my desire to honor god,” says another.

The app works – when it does work – by taking screenshots of whatever you’re looking at on your phone a couple of times a minute, and feeding the results into its system. From there, AI technology decides what constitutes regular phone use and what it deems to be pornographic incursions. When the app thinks you’ve viewed porn, it sends an alert to your “accountability partner”, a trusted person you have designated to help you on your porn-free journey.

It’s unclear what your partner is actually meant to do with this information – issue a stern telling off, offer an arm round the shoulder, or turn up at your house with a crucifix and some holy water. Covenant Eyes might be able to identify a pornography problem, but is that alone enough to help people overcome one?

In a video clip from 2022 that resurfaced earlier this month, Johnson, 51, said he had been using Covenant Eyes with his son, Jack, who was 17 at the time. The pair received a report on one another’s internet usage once a week, Johnson said. He added that his son had “got a clean slate so far” but did not comment on the cleanliness of his own slate. Having used the app for a week, I can confirm that mine, unfortunately, is soiled.

But soiled unfairly, largely because of issues with what Covenant Eyes considers porn.

Over the course of several days, the app frequently reacted prudishly to numerous pictures of women, repeatedly flagging distinctly PG content as inappropriate and sending my accountability partner’s phone into meltdown.

An Instagram photo of a female friend on a beach, wearing a bikini, triggered a push notification to my partner’s phone, wrongfully accusing me of delving into pornography. An article about women’s soccer, which had a picture of two athletes after a game wearing their under-shirt garments, did the same.

Broadly speaking, if a woman’s midriff or upper chest is visible, Covenant Eyes will not like it. It serves as a neat reflection of the evangelical world Covenant Eyes operates within.

But what might a God-fearing Christian – who marked his election as speaker by kneeling in prayer in the House of Representatives and has said the government should not provide “legal sanction” for homosexuality – search for if he wanted titillation?

johnson holds out thumb and forefinger, with the word
Covenant Eyes only works properly on Android phones. Illustration: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

If the House speaker were to type “pretty ladies” into his Google search bar, he would find himself in hot water. When I tried it, one of the image results showed a woman in a blue bikini, and Covenant Eyes immediately flagged it as explicit content. “Attractive dames” also triggered Covenant Eyes, while “conservative hotties” sent the app into a frenzy, after Google produced images of women in swimwear in front of American flags.

Curiously, the app does not have a problem with the male form. When a friend sent a link to a New York City-based all-male strip club, Covenant Eyes didn’t seem to care – even letting it slide when I clicked through to some photos of the oiled-up dancers.

Aside from a general (albeit gendered) overzealousness, a problem with Covenant Eyes is that it only properly works on Android phones. The Google app version will monitor all your phone activity, across everything. Trying to sneak a glimpse of hot women on Instagram? Your son/accountability partner will get an alert. Look for smut on Facebook – where Johnson has 36,000 followers – and your buddy will know.

On the iPhone, however, the app is only able to track what you search for in Safari, which makes it very easy to sidestep watching eyes.

Hours of research yielded photos from this year showing the speaker using an iPhone with three rear cameras. The first iPhone to boast three rear cameras was released in 2019, which means Johnson could theoretically have evaded the full scrutiny of Covenant Eyes for four years. Other images, however, suggest Johnson also has access to a non-iPhone product. His office did not respond to questions.

As well as behaving prudishly, Covenant Eyes, which costs $18.99 per month, frequently disconnected my phone from the internet. Whole days would go by when it didn’t track my internet usage at all. Separately, in 2022 Google determined that Covenant Eyes violated its policies after a Wired investigation raised questions over how much information the app collected; the app has since returned to the Google Play store.

Covenant Eyes was founded in 2000 by Ron DeHaas, a former “Putt Putt professional” and current “ruling elder” at an evangelical church in Michigan, per his church profile. Covenant Eyes, which did not respond to an interview request, claims DeHaas has overseen “over 1.5 million man-hours of battling pornography and sex trafficking”, which amounts to 171 years.

It’s fitting that anti-porn resources developed by a Putt-Putt player-turned-evangelical elder are steeped in Christian faith.

In a section on how to control the amount of porn you consume, Covenant Eyes suggests people should “look God in the face”. Elsewhere it offers more belligerent advice: “Pray like you’re at war.” Given the gratuitous mentions of porn all over the website, by the time a porn-watcher comes across this guidance, they will need all the prayer they can get. It’s small wonder that Covenant Eyes compares the effort to reduce porn-viewing to the “intense and graphic” scenes of D-Day.

For Johnson and his son, an app that monitors what you do on your phone – notwithstanding the questions about what sort of phone Johnson uses – seems to be working. Jack has his dad’s approval, and while we know less about Johnson’s internet activity, his political career is on the up.

But for people who don’t need to know exactly what their friends or children are doing online, Covenant Eyes – with its handkerchief-clutching approach to photos of women and pugnacious attitude about pornography consumption – might not be the way to go.