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TalkTalk gay charity block shows UK internet filters are censoring LGBTIs

Phone giant says internet block on gay support charity was a mistake, but experts say UK government policy is making the internet less free
London Friend: The shopfront is open but the internet is blocked at this UK LGBTI support and counseling charity.

The British Government’s new internet filtering is shutting down LGBTI community voices, experts have warned today.

The policy, designed to prevent children seen porn and harmful content is also catching sites which actually help people, with gay, bi and trans sites in the frontline.

One such site, London Friend, was ‘mistakenly’ blocked by leading phone company TalkTalk’s filtering software, it emerged today (19 December).

London Friend, which was founded in 1972 and claims to be the UK’s oldest lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans charity, provides a range of support and counseling services for members of the LGBTI community.

That includes long-running campaigns on sexual health and encouraging individuals to have themselves HIV tested, as well as advice on coming out.

They were informed just before midnight yesterday by individuals attempting to access their site that they appeared to be being blocked by TalkTalk’s HomeSafe filtering package.

According to TalkTalk users, their site had been categorized as ‘pornographic’.

They tweeted out to see if anyone else had been having difficulty and discovered anti-HIV group, GMFA (previously called Gay Men Fighting AIDS) had also been blocked.

They then raised the matter with TalkTalk who apologized and promised to remove the block within a matter of hours – although London Friend have not yet been able to confirm this has been done.

They also asked TalkTalk to explain the process by which their site had come to be blocked, but TalkTalk have not responded to this question.

According to Monty Moncrieff, chief executive of London Friend: ‘It’s all very well them stating that is a mistake – but as the number of “mistakes” in respect of LGBT sites grows, that excuse is beginning to wear a little thin.

‘What we really want to know is why we were blocked – what it is about the blocking process that caused this to happen.

‘Unless they come clean about the process, the suspicion must remain that this is not so much a mistake as an unintended side-effect of the way their software is meant to work.’

GayStarNews spoke with TalkTalk and put a series of key questions to them. Of the block applied to LGBT Friend, we asked ‘at what stage in the process, or how, in the process, did their site get added?’

And we asked:

  • Was it the result of a key word or term search, and therefore could they explain which key word triggered its addition?
  • Did someone ‘evaluate’ the site, and in which case, what was it about the site that led to its addition?
  • Was it some other aspect of the process (again, if it was, which aspect) that led to its addition?

While insisting the matter was a simple ‘mistake’, they did not answer these questions.

They also would not say whether any audit had been carried out to determine the nature of the mistake. IT best process would ordinarily require an audit to be carried out before deciding whether a particular aspect of system functioning was a ‘mistake’ or not.

However, they did allude to the fact blocking decisions were the result of a ‘complex algorithm’ – though again would not explain the nature of the algorithm or whether it was working off some form of list generated by human input or was self-generating.

In computer terminology, a heuristic process is one where computers ‘learn’ through trial and error.

If that is applied here, by a process such as ‘neural net learning’ to modify blocklists, anti-LGBTI bias could creep into the process even though this was not directly ‘intended’ by any member of TalkTalk management.

Lib Dem councillor and trans activist, Sarah Brown told Gay Star News: ‘The “Great Firewall of Britain” is turning out to be the disaster many of us warned it would be.

‘Reports are rife these filters don’t block lots of porn, but do block legitimate support and health sites.

‘If it turns out, as seems to be the case, that LGBT resources are targeted disproportionately, then ISPs are probably exposing themselves to legal challenge under the Equality Act too.’

A GSN report on filters and blocks, published in November, indicated how a complex, secretive network of companies provide the systems involved – and are totally democratically unaccountable.

We also highlighted how sites helping LGBTI communities are particularly at risk, potentially leading to blockers breaking equality laws.

TalkTalk’s Homesafe system, which was earlier this year praised by Prime Minister David Cameron for its ‘leadership’ in this area is supplied by Chinese technology firm Huawei.

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