Current Affairs

Comment: The effect of censorware on gay websites

Paul Canning September 10, 2010
bookmarking iconBookmark Article has received numerous reports this week that mobile internet access to this website is being blocked. Comments on these stories suggest that readers are finding that other gay websites are being blocked not just on mobiles but on PCs in workplaces.

None of this comes as a surprise to those who’ve been following the use of the software which blocks these sites – known as ‘censorware’ – for more than a decade.

Eleven years ago I authored a report for a coalition of Australian gay groups to the Australian Senate, which was looking into a possible national filter of the internet, a way to block out all the ‘bad stuff’ which local media was sensationally reporting on. For several years before that, in fact back until 1996, activists had been documenting how censorware routinely blocked not just innocuous LGBT websites but also others. The most famous example was breast cancer information but others were blocked seemingly at random, known as ‘over blocking’.

The Australians have been trying to get this national filter going for a decade and haven’t yet won, largely because it would be one huge brake on internet speeds. Plus, paedophiles have moved onto the unblockable ‘dark’ internet. Last year, the proposed controlled list of banned sites was leaked. It contained not only gay websites but also a similarly random group to that being reported 13 years earlier.

Censorware really isn’t that sophisticated. You’re talking about certain words triggering a block, rather than a machine spotting that a flesh tone in an image is porn and not Botticelli. ‘Artificial intelligence’ it ain’t.

In a hilarious example of this unsophistication two years ago, a right-wing American news site automatically changed the name of Jamaican Olympic star sprinter Tyson Gay to ‘Tyson homosexual’.

Censorware is usually American and as with any nationally distributed product there – like school text books – it can end up adopting the values not of San Francisco but of Alabama because they’re the ‘default’. To Alabaman sensibilities a ‘sex/nudity’ category should definitely include gay websites that others, say Californians, would assume to be inoffensive. Oh sure, you can tweak it, change the settings, make it more closely match your values but how many bother? Bottom line is, that’s why LGBT sites end up being blocked by products largely produced out of one the most liberal places in the USA, Silicon Valley.

Censorware is a product and an unregulated one at that. Its key selling point to employers and parents is that its ‘technology’ will stop either time being wasted or little Janet or Johnny looking at either boobies or meeting some pervert online. In that decade-old report I noted some appalling marketing by one big company in the immediate wake of the Columbine school massacre and censorware is still playing on similar fears today.

Nowadays it’s seen and sold as insurance, though the marketers would claim otherwise. We all know that kids can get around it. Despite the best efforts of the Iranians (using Nokia Siemens software by the way) the opposition still used it to anonymously post video of Iranian thugs bashing demonstrators.

It’s almost like the software equivalent of over-the-top health and safety rules, more about protecting people from being sued than actually, y’know, protecting people.

Parents, for example, are told by government on the one hand that they should get involved with their kids’ internet use but on the other hand government pushes software stand-ins with names like Net Nanny which offer just a perception of safety.

This all has a very serious outcome for those kids who use the internet to get answers not just to ‘am I gay?’ but also ‘my uncle’s touching me, what should I do?’ or ‘I think I have an STI’. This unsophisticated and totally unregulated software can block their access to help or peer support and advice.

LGBT youth forums contain numerous postings about help sites being blocked in schools. The industry’s answer – in much the same way as T-Mobile – tells users they can be unblocked on request, but this isn’t going to happen with closeted teenagers who simply aren’t going to ask. There are also legitimate worries with the monitoring which it is often packaged with.

The internet is now by far the prime source of information for young people and we should ask why we have no control over its gatekeepers in the case of censorware and what control we have over those tasked with using it to monitor internet use.

In particular I wonder where the European Union is at with censorware. It has shown several times that it can bend giant American companies to its will, with both Google and Microsoft being forced to take costly action. It has gone at them hammer and tong over privacy and taken a great interest in games.

But not this.

Readers have been wondering whether equalities legislation is relevant here. One would think it would be. If anyone else was flogging a product where no serious attempt had been made to remove its inherent discrimination against LGBT people, there would be a justified outcry.

So why is a product which stops gay kids talking to their peers online not only allowed to get away with it but is actually being promoted as a necessary purchase in order to ‘protect our kids’? And why are these companies continually asking their customers to report blocked websites rather than making sure that they don’t ‘over block’ in the first place?

Related topics: Australia

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