Internet companies may be breaking the law by routinely blocking LGBTI websites, Gay Star News can reveal.
We have uncovered what appears to be a shocking level of ingrained cultural bias towards the gay, bi, trans and intersex community that infects almost every part of the internet.
And experts say it isolates vulnerable LGBTI people, stopping them accessing vital information.
The blocks can be traced back to a few firms most people have never heard of – but by using their services, companies in the UK, Europe and elsewhere could be breaching equality laws.
Meanwhile, in Britain, some are using a new government crackdown on internet nastiness to excuse their blocking of LGBTI sites.
Ironically, some of the sites at risk provide vital tools to support our most vulnerable young people.
Sites like the one you are reading now are also censored, despite GSN’s strict no-porn policy.
Feminist comedian, Susan Calman blew the whistle in a recent case where she found the site of arts event Glasgay!, in Glasgow, Scotland, was not accessible from the wi-fi on her train.
Glasgay! is not, as one of their management team explained, an adults-only event, or in any sense pornographic.
However, instead of the Glasgay! homepage, a warning popped up on her screen saying the page was ‘restricted’ as it was ‘considered to be inappropriate or malicious’.
On complaining to Virgin Trains, she was given a number to call, where she was informed that Glasgay! had been classified as ‘porn’, and therefore blocked.
The operator was adamant there was no automatic equation of ‘gay’ with ‘porn’.
Calman complained to lesbian magazine DIVA too. The result was the block was lifted. A similar issue reported on Scotrail, another UK train operator, wi-fi also ‘cleared’ at the same time.
But it has thrown up a wider issue – showing how a network of mysterious interlinked companies ‘blacklist’ LGBTI sites without direct accountability to internet users.
Each, in turn, sub-contract their online filtering to other providers.
However, neither Icomera nor Nomad were prepared to confirm who their service providers are.
Nor, so far, have we been able to obtain details from either company of how their filtering works: why, for instance, Glasgay! might be wrongly categorized as an adult site.
Nicholas Fry, a lawyer at Bindmans LLP, a firm specializing in UK discrimination law, told us the filters may breach the Equality Act 2010.
He said: ‘Under the Equality Act it is unlawful to discriminate because of sexual orientation in providing services. In particular it says a service provider must not discriminate against a consumer by subjecting them to detrimental treatment in providing the service. It doesn’t matter whether the service is for payment or for free.
‘If the internet search filter restricts LGBT users from accessing [non-sexual] LGBT sites and their only recourse is to call a helpline then this would appear to put them at a particular disadvantage because of sexual orientation.
‘Whether or not there is a breach of the Equality Act depends on all the facts, but on the face of it there is serious cause for concern here.
‘If the filter is “indirectly discriminatory”, ie it applies to all users but puts LGBT users at a particular disadvantage, there is a defense: if the company can show the filter was a “proportionate” way to achieve “a legitimate aim” (eg stopping people seeing explicit material) then it won’t be unlawful.
‘The argument might center on whether the filter could have been calibrated in a more subtle way to enable LGBT users to access innocent sites.’
He added in this case the train company was running the biggest risk of being sued, as they are the ones providing the service to passengers.
Potentially this exposes thousands of companies who provide public wi-fi access to legal danger. Often they will be unaware of the risk they are running.
And it’s not just a hypothetical legal risk either – the filters appear to be so widespread they could cause real harm.
Leading UK gay rights organization Stonewall is certainly concerned.
Stonewall spokesman Richard Lane said: ‘Organizations sometimes end up, often inadvertently, blocking gay content.
‘Our concern, which we have raised with both government organizations and with sites such as Tumblr, is that such filters can block important support information for young gay people.
‘For them, the internet is often the only avenue they have to access support and there’s a danger that controls and filters can result in denying young people and teenagers access to absolutely vital information.’
The UK Government is backing online filtering enthusiastically. But despite the Prime Minister’s personal support, their answer to GSN indicates even they now realize they may have gone too far.
The Prime Minister’s office referred us to the Department for Culture Media and Sport, who said: ‘Internet Service Providers constantly refine their filters to keep families as safe as possible in the ever-changing digital world.
‘Following a request from government, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety has set up a new working group involving charities and industry to look at the effectiveness of family friendly filters – in particular to check that they are not inadvertently filtering out content providing advice to young people in areas such as sex education.’
Both Icomera and Nomad argue inclusion of gay sites on an adult block list is simply unfortunate and not evidence of any pattern.
Both have sought to distance themselves from any responsibility for the blocking software operates.
And both point out individuals can have sites unblocked or ‘whitelisted’ by making a call to a helpdesk – albeit it is a paid-for call.
The real question is whether such blocks are simply random – or reflect a wider societal bias against the LGBTI community and an assumption a ‘gay site’ will automatically be sexual in nature.
This was highlighted by the response from the Icomera spokesman. He first suggested the site might be adult and, on being informed it was not, asked if it was not partly adult in nature.
We asked Icomera whether they did not consider such a reaction to be offensive to LGBTI people. We also asked them about the lawfulness of their software implementation – but they said they are too busy to reply.
Nomad, by contrast, has undertaken to carry out pro-active monitoring now we have highlighted the problem.
But their reply indicates how UK Government policy may have exacerbated problems.
A spokesman for Nomad said: ‘Nomad takes matters of discrimination and inequality very seriously. It does not wish or intend to unfairly discriminate against any group or person.
‘Its over-riding goal is to provide an “appropriate and fair” service in the eyes of its passengers, operators and the UK Government. It was an active participant in the recent industry initiative, supported by the UK Government, to put measures in place to block website on its hotspots deemed inappropriate to children (such as pornography).
‘We do not believe that our web-filtering provider acts to discriminate unfairly either, but we appreciate some website filtering could be deemed unfair and is therefore a grey area.
‘If passengers (or others) highlight unfair or unnecessary blocking of sites, then we will of course review this. To date, we have had very few such requests.’
They company also said it would be prepared to ‘review any case made to relax the current filters’.
Of all those involved, Scotrail offered the most fulsome apology. They told us: ‘Unfortunately, the software appears to have blocked access to some lesbian and gay community websites, such as online lifestyle magazines.
‘As soon as ScotRail became aware of an issue with accessing the Glasgay! Festival website earlier this month, it was added to a “whitelist” of sites which over-ride the automatic filter.
‘The train operator is currently in the process of adding dozens more websites to this whitelist.
‘In addition, it is encouraging anyone who believes they are being wrongly blocked from a website to get in touch by calling 0845 601 5929 [in the UK] or emailing us.
But even this response indicates the problem.
Many people running LGBTI community sites are well-meaning volunteers, not internet experts.
They naively assume freedom of speech is alive and well online. They simply don’t know how to whitelist their content.
How are they supposed to know how to contact the faceless organizations blacklisting them in the first place?
It remains to be seen if the potential legal threat will encourage companies who use these filtering services to pressure them to change their mind.
But in the long-term a big change is needed to create a truly free, LGBTI-friendly internet, with a proportionate approach to porn and other sites harmful to children and vulnerable people.
The obvious solution is an international industry-wide code of conduct – backed up with a one-stop, well publicized, whitelisting service which all filter-systems and all service providers sign-up to and use.
If it is really in the public interest to blacklist sites, the names of the sites blacklisted should be publicly available and the service providers should provide an appeals system for those who are wrongly blocked.