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Filter firms are destroying the gay and trans internet

Filter firms are destroying the gay and trans internet

British Telecom were last week in serious damage control mode after it emerged they were blocking non-pornographic LGBTI websites.

Being a polite sort of person, I must instead ascribe their current effusion of inaccurate statements on what they’ve been up to as the natural tendency of PR types to put a positive spin on things.

So I shall instead content myself to inquiring how their version of the truth – as well as the claims of other telecoms and internet providers – stacks up against what is actually happening.

Which appears, on the surface, to be a chilling attack on the LGBTI community.

Until Friday of last week, BT’s parental controls offered parents a variety of options for content blocking in respect of their little ones – 17 categories to be precise, including such dubious activities as porn, gambling and alcohol.

They also offered one catgegory – ‘sex education’ – which explained parents might wish to block access to material on ‘gay and lesbian lifestyle’.

Caught out – discovered with their virtual trousers well and truly down around their ankles – BT spluttered about how this was an ‘accidental mis-description’.

It was there for parents who didn’t want ‘very young children’ accessing sex education material: the filter itself ‘didn’t distinguish’ heterosexual and LGBT content.

All the same, the damage was done, the insult delivered, and worse is the fact BT themselves still don’t appear to understand what it is that they have just done.

As another anonymous spokesman explained earlier in the day in the Independent: ‘BT Parental Controls can be customized to suit each individual family’s needs.’ In other words, all they were doing – they claimed – was giving parents the tools and letting them choose from an infinite range of possibilities.

That’s the bit that’s not exactly true.

In somewhat facetious discussion with friends on Friday night, we debated whether a filter on UK Prime Minister David Cameron, himself a champion of internet filtering to protect young people, would be a good idea.

More darkly, we identified there was no such thing as a filter to exclude mention of black or Asian sites. Just as well: because the last thing that anyone who believes in an open society wants to see is site-blocking on racial or religious grounds.

Which is not to say there are no racists and bigots out there who would quite like to have such an option. Like as not, you’ll find people who want to block all mention of Roma, or disability, too. Who knows.

The point, however, is: BT are not just handing out a neutral tool for parents to fine-tune as they please. They are handing out a tool in which some categories – lesbian and gay – are present and identified, and other categories (race, religion, gender) are wholly absent. Their tool is implicitly homophobic and transphobic simply by virtue of the options on offer.

This is, for those who care about such things, a position of total privilege. BT are so deeply imbued with heteronormative values that they don’t even notice when they do something that is not just offensive, but in the end potentially dangerous to all under the LGBTI umbrella.

Although, of course, its not just BT. Over the last few weeks, as filtering has become increasingly reality, something that has been very noticeable is the extent to which sites in any way associated with LGBTI activities are almost routinely mis-categorised as ‘adult’. In one instance, the organization that did this volunteered the ‘adult’ explanation as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

Because, LGBTI is about sex, isn’t it? So the default presumption must be that it’s adult and most likely kinky at that.

Now, where have we heard that before? Ah, yes: back in the 70s and 80s, when it was common to hear people express the view that they totally supported giving ‘them’ rights, but ‘you wouldn’t want one of them teaching your kids, would you?’

Always, always this muddling and muddying: This slur that if its anything to do with LGBTI it has to be something inappropriate for children.

Always, too, an excuse. I have lost count of how often and through how many organizations I have now been given the ultimate disrespectful brush-off: its an unfortunate mistake. A one-off. Which sounds plausible, until you start to notice just how many one-offs seem to involve gay or trans or intersex sites.

On mobile phone provider O2 for instance, I have yet to find a single site containing LGBT in its name that passes the parental controls: even a respectable business site doesn’t make the grade, we can only assume because the owner of the business in question happens to be trans.

Worse, so complacent are these organizations they now hand out this fobbing off on near auto-pilot. Have they investigated? Do they know what it is about their process that caused this or that LGBTI site to be blocked?

No. But they are confident, all the same, and in every instance, that it’s just an unfortunate mistake.

This is bad. Very bad. When the UK had Section 28, our own anti-gay ‘promotion’ law, it was only official channels of information that were being closed to young people: while now, it is all online channels that run the risk of being shut down.

It is beginning to look very much like online filtering and blocking is going to turn out to be systematically homophobic, transphobic – and until organizations responsible for these processes start to explain what is going on behind the scenes, we have no reason to believe otherwise.