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Filtered-down access: an uncensored look at technology and the LGBT community

Speakers at the panel event.
Speakers at the panel event.

When you hear internet filters, your mind probably does not immediately jump to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. However, LGBT members are among those most affected by content filtering in public schools and libraries, which often censors and restricts far more content than is legally required. Today, the LGBT Technology Partnership and Institute presented a new report on Capitol Hill: “Vision for Inclusion: An LGBT Broadband Future.” Report authors Jessie Daniels and Mary Gray spoke about their findings at an event, as well as their number one policy concerns in regards to LGBT broadband access.

Both authors stressed that LGBT members are core broadband users, and rely on technology to combat the social isolation and lack of access to health information that is especially present in rural areas. In addition, the internet is a ‘public sphere’ for the LGBT population, and plays an important role in connecting members to education, identity formation, civic engagement, and a safe community. Daniels found that the most surprising thing she learned while conducting this research was “the tremendous role libraries play in supporting the LGBT community, with librarians often acting as mentors. Librarians truly are the unsung heroes of LGBT inclusion,” she stated.

A second panel of experts in broadband-related fields followed the authors’ presentation, and discussed the research implications for various sectors. Kristen Batch represented the ALA, speaking specifically about the misinformation surrounding filters and the largely unexamined issue of over-filtering in public institutions.

Batch’s recently published report “Fencing Out Knowledge” (pdf) compares the very limited legal requirements for internet filtering set out by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) with the heavy handed and highly restrictive censorship that often takes place in schools and libraries. The law requires institutions that receive government funding to block images and only images, which contain child pornography, obscene material, and content harmful to minors under 17.

Unfortunately, many schools and libraries install filtering software that censors far more than images, and whole websites for LGBT support groups, social media communities, LGBT health information, suicide prevention sites, and resources on STDs/HIV/AIDS are also blocked. These resources can be lifesaving for members of the LGBT community, especially those isolated in rural areas or non-LGBT-friendly communities. Indeed, author Mary Gray stated that her number-one policy concern is the need for better filtering.

Researcher Kristen Batch at event.
Researcher Kristen Batch at event.

Researcher Kristen Batch spoke to this concern, stating that the CIPA law itself is not the issue–it is very narrow and has the unobjectionable goal of preventing child pornography and similarly obscene images from being present in public institutions. Instead, better education about what the law requires and how to implement filters is needed. This also requires greater digital literacy education–teaching administrators how to implement filters and train students and the public to safely navigate the web.

Batch also made the important point that different filters are not the answer, because there is no competitive market out there to ‘design the best, most accurate filter.’ Instead, digital skills and complying with the law as it is actually written will go a long way towards increasing public access to information, by teaching administrators how to set web filters to allow access to all text, social media, and health education that is particularly vital to those who rely on public internet access.

As Daniels remarked, “We [the LGBT community] are a great indicator for what life is like for people at the margins” and the digital challenges that LGBT members face in accessing vital information and resources “is a great marker for the experience of others at the margins.” There is much to be learned from the LGBT community’s experience with digital access and how to address challenges moving forward.

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Margaret Kavaras

Margaret Kavaras is a research associate for the Office for Information Technology Policy, where she served as the 2014 Google Policy Fellow.

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