This week computer manufacturing giant Dell is taking some heat for a web filter product it sells that specifically allows users to block gay and lesbian content despite the fact that these sites may provide nothing more than helpful resources or information.
Concerns were first raised by Gay Star News who found that a number of companies, including Dell and Trend Micro Inc., are selling products that specifically allow people to block gay and lesbian content, and in Dell’s case the so-called SonicWall product, which is for users wanting to block “sites that provide information, promote, or cater to gay and lesbian lifestyles.”
The description continues to say that it “[d]oes not include sites that are sexually oriented.” To add a little bit of context, we’re not talking about sexually explicit sites which are banned under a general pornography filter, but rather a filter designed to bar access to general LGBT-interest sites.
Among examples of websites that would be blocked by this filter include gay.com, a gay male-oriented website that admittedly thrives on a staple diet of shirtless (but not normally nude) hunks but is also about general lifestyle things like music and television, and We Are Family which has absolutely nothing to do with nudity and everything to do with providing LGBTQI and straight ally teens a safe environment to find resources, information, events of interest and more. These things are clearly not the same, and yet the SonicWall filter apparently treats them as synonymous.
There are a number of other categories we might find questionable for their broad strokes, too. They include “sex education,” “religion” and “abortion/advocacy groups.” The fact some of these filter categories appear to be catering toward keeping people ignorant begins to chafe just a bit.
Since Gay Star News brought the matter to Trend Micro Inc.’s attention — it was, the company has noted, already working on the issue — it has announced it will be retiring similar options from its content filtering package, but Dell told Gay Star News that it will not. The filter, a spokesperson contends, is just one option among many in its category filters and that, apparently, this as a matter that is up to the user:
“Dell SonicWALL security products offer a multitude of content filtering options that help connection owners make choices to allow or not allow access of certain sites based on business and organization needs.
The gay and lesbian content filter is part of a filter category that represents many different topics of interest. Our goal is to provide choices to our customers, allowing access to what they need so they can ensure a productive and efficient environment for their users.
We make no judgment on our customers’ filter choices, we never deny access to any sites, nor do we pre-populate a block on any sites, including gay and lesbian sites.”
Dell might suggest that this is about putting the power in customers’ hands and allowing them to make their own free choices and in so doing try to wash its hands of the issue. Yet, it is worth highlighting what businesses and in particular some schools actually do with these content filters.
Care2 has covered several stories in the past few years where U.S. school districts have used web filters that ban LGBT content while allowing religious conservative content that condemns being LGBT. Indeed, in a handful of cases such censorship has been argued in the courts and school administrations have been slapped with orders to remove the content filters as they have used them to infringe on the rights of potentially vulnerable kids who might be searching for entirely age appropriate information relating to their emerging identity or looking for help to deal with a related issue.
It’s interesting to note that Dell has been given 100 percent on the HRC’s Equality Index which rates businesses for their LGBT-friendliness. Clearly, and assuming that the Index isn’t flawed, Dell is doing a lot right. That makes Dell’s apparent lack of sensitivity on this issue quite puzzling, but Dell is by no means the only one to struggle with category filters like these.
The issue arises as jurisdictions and even entire countries debate whether the once unfettered World Wide Web should come with pre-installed parental controls that have a degree of automatic restriction on adult content.
This is an argument currently unfolding in the U.K., for instance, where the government has encouraged internet providers to use content filters so that users have to “opt-in” to enjoy adult content. It might all sound perfectly reasonable, but a number of content filtering programs have since been shown to be blocking access to entirely mundane LGBT websites with no adult content whatsoever. They’ve also been blocking innocuous sites like BBC News and even, quite laughably, sites the government itself has created. Clearly, we need to get better at this. And fast.
The Internet is a complex thing that is egalitarian in its providing all kinds of information. Parsing it up into what is acceptable for general and specific consumption is somewhat disdainful. It certainly was never going to be easy.
Still, saying that Dell is giving “haters” the power to hate by allowing them to restrict web access on their own computers is overzealous because these filters are actually designed simply to create web surfing environments conducive to productive work and education time. There is a legitimate interest in trying to tailor an office or school environment toward productivity.
Yet, pointing out that Dell appears to have missed that what it is shoehorning in under “lifestyle” filters is in fact a facet of many a persons’ identity is also a valid criticism. For me, it isn’t that Dell is allowing users to block this content so much as the way in which it is grouping the content that is questionable. This is a problem that Dell and other businesses engaging in the web filtering industry must treat seriously because information like the content We Are Family is providing really can be valuable, even life-saving, for young LGBTQIs, and it is them that really could stand to be hurt by this.
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