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How web filters are ‘protecting’ you from harmless gay content

The Lesbian and Gay Foundation discuss the dangers when companies like O2 to AOL block LGBTI information and services online, and what you can do to help
The Lesbian and Gay Foundation sheds some light on the harmful effect of gay content blockers.

You may not realize, but LGBTI people are regularly blocked from seeing information on the Internet, simply because of their sexuality.

This is homophobia, and it’s not being challenged. Web filtering is preventing people from accessing vital services and information on health, wellbeing, and sexual health.

This could lead to serious health and wellbeing issues. We want you to understand the scale of the issue, and how you can tackle it.

A lot of what is being blocked is completely innocent. E-mails that contain words such as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘sexuality’ are treated like spam. Non-pornographic websites aimed at the LGBTI community are banned – including vital support services, lifestyle sites and news and magazine sites like this one.

The blockers don’t seem to know the difference between titillating sex sites and sex education sites. And even LGBTI charities like Stonewall have been blocked.

The problem has hit us at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF) too.

Email filters block us when we tried to send information on mental health to Britain’s National Health Service. In another case, an email sent to a National Health Service (NHS) organization flagged up a warning the content may be ‘offensive’, just because it contained the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’. And our emails to the local press regularly go in the spam folder, meaning we can’t get information about our LGBTI community to their readers.

In 2010, The LGF discovered the Internet service provider AOL was flagging every email containing the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘sexual’. All emails sent from The LGF to people with AOL accounts were ‘bounced back’. This has a tremendously damaging impact, in that vital information could not be sent to a sizeable number of people who approached us for help.

There are lots more examples. So what impact might blocking access have on vulnerable LGBTI people?

UK gay domestic violence charity Broken Rainbow recently stated its concern around ‘web filtering’, and the hugely damaging effect it could have on people in crisis who are seeking genuine support.

We spoke to the young people who attend a group in Wigan, Manchester. Here are some of their responses:

  • ‘I’m annoyed. It’s not fair to people like us who actually want to visit certain sites for support.’
  • ‘It’s inequality and a lack of support. If you didn’t have the right access to sites it could cause mental health issues that could lead to bullying. After gay marriage, this seems like a step back.’
  • ‘It’s probably being filtered because porn automatically comes up when searching for words such as “gay”, “lesbian” unless you specify.’

We do not minimize the importance of protecting young people from pornographic material. But we need to challenge the idea people searching for LGBTI content online are only, or mostly, looking for porn. Filtering companies and Internet providers need to get this right. Are they working with the LGBTI support sector to fix the problem? If not, why?

The level of censorship by using the opt-in filters of major Internet service providers has provoked a stream of criticism on social media sites. Blanket bans on certain topics is not a solution. Many sites are only discovered as banned after users have searched for them. Many blogging sites have also been blocked.

And the sites that have been blocked indicate how widespread the problem is. In Britain, mobile phone firm O2 blocked nspcc.org.uk, a national charity dedicated to preventing child abuse, and childline.org.uk, the NSPCC’s ChildLine helpline for kids in trouble. Also blocked was the samaritans.org, a highly regarded charity helpline. How does that help protect children?

The government’s own sites fell foul of the over-zealous filter, including gov.uk and parliament.uk. Ironically, the site of MP Claire Perry, a campaigner for tighter controls on Internet content, was also filtered.

Some companies are tackling the issue.

When First Group, which provides rail services in Britain, found their on-train Wi-Fi was blocking access to some gay content, including the Glasgay! Festival website, they lifted the block. Since then they’ve been pro-actively checking similar sites.

Likewise, Dell, which provides the technology to block the sites, dropped ‘gay and lesbian’ as a filtering category after GSN reported on the issue.

But a lot of companies may not realize their automated filtering software is blocking legitimate sites, so contact them directly and let them know. They may be able to rectify the situation immediately.

And if e-mails are being bounced back, notify the recipient and copy the ‘block’ response you received.

If you know that your provider is blocking access and they won’t fix it straight away, let them know and move to a provider who doesn’t.

And let The LGF know. We’re working with organizations to highlight this issue. So anything – no matter how small – will be useful in the campaign to allow access to LGBTI information and services online.

Denying online access to vital health and wellbeing information to LGBTI people is unacceptable. The damage to people’s lives can’t be underestimated. People in crisis need full access to information that is relevant to them and their lives.

We need Internet providers and organizations to work with the LGBTI community to ensure they have equal access without judgment or prejudice. It’s simply not acceptable to filter information based on sexuality. It’s homophobic.

The LGF (and other LGBTI charities) have had years of issues around web filtering and e-mail blocking. You may well have faced the problem, and you may not even have known about it.

It’s time Internet providers became genuinely LGBTI-friendly and fixed this mess.
 

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