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

How web filters are ‘protecting’ you from harmless gay content
14 March 2014

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.
 

HAVE YOUR SAY

MORE TOP STORIES

No thumbnail available

Justice Antonin Scalia says US Supreme Court will hear gay marriage case 'soon'

'I know when, but I’m not going to tell you,' he tells audience during appearance in Colorado
No thumbnail available

Obama’s surprises gay couple with wedding letter

Barack Obama congratulated Matt Katz and Aaron Lafrenz on their New York marriage
No thumbnail available

Gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi reportedly found dead

Police had been searching for Marco McMillian after someone else driving his car got into an accident
No thumbnail available

Mexico effectively legalizes same-sex marriage

Supreme Court rules that same-sex marriage bans are illegal
No thumbnail available

London buses carry pro-gay marriage posters

You wait ages for a pro-gay marriage poster, then 1,000 come along at once, courtesy of Stonewall
No thumbnail available

Jeb Bush: Gay marriage debate won't be over 'irrespective of what the courts say'

Presidential candidate also speaks of importance of children being raised by heterosexual parents
No thumbnail available

House’s Hugh Laurie says he’d boycott Russian vodka over gay rights record

British star of US series House has said he’d boycott Russian goods over the country’s treatment of LGBTI people – sparking a harsh reaction in the Russian media
No thumbnail available

Rhode Island to become 10th state to pass gay marriage

All New England states are to have same-sex marriage after Governor Lincoln Chafee passes the equal marriage bill into law
No thumbnail available

Moscow’s Central Station gay nightclub reopening in new location

After a series of attacks on patrons and the venue, Moscow’s Central Station gay night club is reopening in a new location after being driven out of its original building
No thumbnail available

HomoLAB 70

This week we talk chocolate with master chocolatier Paul A. Young, and olive oil with The Gay Farmer.