AMERICAblog Gay reported that their website, as well as a number of other LGBT blogs and websites including GLAAD's website, were being blocked by military computers because they are categorized as LGBT.
This is just the latest in a series of problems for corporations and institutions blocking access to LGBT content on the web. In recent years, Amtrak has made news for blocking some LGBT websites through its on-board wifi service.
But why are institutions like the Department of Defense or Amtrak able to block access to LGBT websites in the first place?
There are two problems: one, IT administrators at institutions are choosing to block websites in the LGBT category. And second, web filtering software companies are still selling and maintaining products that include a filtering category called LGBT, thus allowing the institutions to block access to LGBT-categorized content.
GLAAD found that the Department of Defense uses a web filtering product made by Blue Coat Services, a company based in Sunnyvale, CA. We have reached out to them to discuss their practices around LGBT sites.
Blue Coat categorizes websites into ninety categories that range from type of content (e.g. "Audio/Video Clips"); to audience (e.g. "For Kids," "Adult/Mature Content"); to topic (e.g. "Travel," "Hacking"). There is a category called "LGBT," which Blue Coat explains in a statement. As many advocates have pointed out, there are no filter categories based on race, ethnicity or gender -- LGBT is the sole category based on core identity. See the full list of Blue Coat's categories below.
A young LGBT person seeking support could be blocked from accessing the suicide prevention services found on The Trevor Project's website or the support resources found on GLSEN's website -- simply because the young person's school IT administrator chose to block access to the LGBT category.
The Department of Defense gave the following statement to AMERICAblog Gay:
"No filter is perfect and some sites may have unnecessarily been blocked. The Department Chief Information Officer will work with relevant components to address these situations."
It is true that web filtering categorization is imperfect. Blue Coat categorizes the National Organization for Marriage's website as "Society/Daily Living." The anti-gay organization is profiled on GLAAD's Commentator Accountability Project (CAP).
Many institutions and companies ban discrimination against LGBT people and strive to treat their LGBT employees equally. If employees of the company are permitted to view a news website about straight people, shouldn't they be allowed to visit a website containing news stories about LGBT people?
The institutions choosing to use their web filter software to block websites categorized as LGBT could be inconsistent with or even in violation of their nondiscrimination policies. By allowing customers to block access to websites categorized as LGBT, the web filtering companies are aiding in this discriminatory practice.
Bob Witeck, President, Witeck Communications, communications expert and consultant, said:
"I have worked with major corporations and nonprofits for nearly two decades. Almost all rely on state-of-the-art software providers and web filters to power their essential links with their employees and customers. So do many public schools, libraries and universities. All aim to deliver content and information safely and responsibly to all.
However, the painful truth is, for the LGBT community, many fail.
Outdated attitudes, ignorance, misguided supervision, intrusive and paternalistic policies, and at times, homophobic anxieties, too often block or censor legitimate and vital LGBT websites and media channels.
The prescription? We quickly need a higher and evolved standard of practices for all software and web-filtering services – along with a commitment made by business, government and academia to insist that LGBT audiences, households and needs be protected, respected and equally served."
It is 2013, and it is time to stop blocking access to LGBT websites. GLAAD is working to end both practices: institutions should cease choosing to block websites in the LGBT category, and web filter companies should eliminate this category that facilitates discrimination.
Blue Coat website categories:
Dynamic DNS Host
Malicious Outbound Data/Botnets
Pay to Surf
Potentially Unwanted Software
Remote Access Tools