When – oh when! – will politicians put their money where their mouth is and pay more than lip service to LGBTI rights online? When will we see politicians prepared to acknowledge that some filtering – as that offered today by Kiddle – goes beyond acceptable, and support a balance backed, if necessary, by laws with teeth.
Of course, we’ve been here before. Most notably with BT’s filtering software that offered parents the chance to block access to sites talking about LGBTI issues, sex ed and domestic violence,. Not to mention Dell’s equally awful LGBTI blocker back in 2013, as well as a long shameful list of softwares that discriminate against perfectly ordinary LGBT sites, reported on by Gay Star News over the last few years.
Still, Kiddle, which launched last week, amid declarations that it provided parents and schools with a new ‘child-friendly search engine’ could be the creepiest, most dangerous yet. And I’m not referring just to the name, which sounds awkwardly like a contraction of ‘kiddy-fiddler’.
For in its zeal to keep children safe online it is not just blocking access to LGBTI sites, but actually telling them that certain key related terms, such as ‘transexual’ are ‘bad words’.
And the excuse that this is all teething problems just will not wash.
Let’s start with what is blocked.
Kiddle applies two levels of censorship. The first, which returns a message warning that the search term ‘contained bad words’, returns the usual mishmash of inconsistent censorship: much that is innocuous ruled out, but quite distressing content still accessible. Thus, the list of ‘bad words’ for which no result is returned – and a warning message displayed – includes the predictable porn, boobs, dick and tits.
Likewise, pussy, cock, minge, quim, muff and anal. Also, dyke, faggot, and butch: so don’t even think about searching for Dick van Dyke. Or, for some reason, Pamela Anderson, who is also classified as ‘containing bad words’.
Meanwhile, a search for ‘friend of Dorothy’ brings up Dorothy Day, a prominent Catholic women’s rights activist.
This could almost be quite a fun parlor game, inserting ever-so-slightly ambiguous terms and trying to second guess what Kiddle deems ‘bad’, and how they are going to respond to your search.
On the other hand, as early users were quick to point out, distressing content still slipped through: for instance, a search on the term ‘rabbit’ returned a story about a rabbit being killed by a Danish radio show host.
However, it is in the area of sex education and almost any search related to LGBTI that the site displays its true colors. Do not search for sex, sexuality or, indeed, pretty much any term containing S-E-X.
Not only ‘sex’, but transexual, asexual and sexuality are rejected as ‘bad words’.
Meanwhile, kids searching for terms such as lesbian, homosexual, bisexual or queer are politely informed: ‘you have entered an LGBT related search query. Please realize that while Kiddle has nothing against the LGBT community, it’s hard to guarantee the safety of all the search results for such queries. We recommend that you talk to your parent or guardian about such topics.’
Really? That is going to end well, as the appalling case of Leelah Alcorn proved just over a year ago. Because those children going online and looking for LGBT related terms are probably doing so precisely because they cannot discuss this topic with their parents.
Either because they find the topic too embarrassing or, worse, too dangerous. (And whilst on the subject, don’t even think of looking for help with child abuse or domestic violence: for they, too, are ‘bad words’).
The thesis that this is merely teething troubles really does not stand up, though, as the history of what has happened so far with the term ‘transgender’.
According to early reports, when first launched Kiddle classified this as a ‘bad word’.
However, in a sign of hastily made-up policy, they first amended this to an LGBT related search query and have now relented.
Well, sort of.
The result: searching for ‘transgender”’returns a series of almost entirely irrelevant sites. The top half dozen or so which, according to Kiddle’s own statements are ‘handpicked and checked by Kiddle editors’, lead with Colage, a Seattle-based network for children with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer parents.
This is followed by another piece on famous trans parent Caitlyn Jenner, and an article on the ethical dilemmas involved in children transitioning. The piece linked to is illustrated with clearly pre-teen children, while making reference to the giving of hormones.
So is Kiddle really learning? Or have their editors just thrown a collective hissy fit and put up some of the most unhelpful links imaginable for trans kids.
Who knows: though parental eyebrows may be raised by the fact that alongside this is the definitely less child-friendly LadyBoy Kisses, a self-proclaimed dating site for ‘ladyboys looking for men’.
Who or what are behind Kiddle?
No-one is quite sure: there is no trackable information available on their site; no direct contact information out there. Anyone seeking to contact Kiddle must either use an online form, with no guarantee of a reply, or an email address routed through internet privacy provider “Domains by Proxy” – a company founded in 2012 with the specific aim of enabling online users to hide their identity from the public.
Best guess is that they are US-based, possibly, as so many other filter providers, with religious links. In the UK, it is very likely that Kiddle will fall foul of anti-discrimination legislation and that any schools or public bodies that seek to adopt it in its present form will be breaking the law.
But this is not good enough. For judging by past history, organizations will adopt it, and it will be left to individual activists and hard-pressed LGBTI organizations to persuade them to unadopt it.
Politicians must stop playing to the gallery: must stop talking as though child safety is a one-way street, with blocking and banning the only tools that matter. They need to acknowledge that access to good safe information about sex, sexuality, gender and a host of other topics are what children need to stay safe. And at present, that is not what is being offered.