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The ‘fight online porn’ crusaders’ gay roadkill

This is a cross post by Paul Canning

Texas has become, like the Tennessee of the Scopes evolution trial, a modern day laboratory for the influence of ‘Xstianism’. That’s the spot on term invented for their sort of muscular, dominionist religiosity by the writer Andrew Sullivan.

Texan Xstians have taken over the body that decides what gets taught in the state’s schools. Alongside the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ they want history rewritten to say things like that McCarthyism was a good idea and so was the gold standard.

Writing last year for the New York Review of Books, Gail Collins describes how the state’s School Board members ..

.. seemed determined just to sprinkle stuff its members liked hither and yon, and eliminate words they found objectionable in favor of more appealing ones. Reading through the deletions and additions, it becomes clear that a majority of board members hated the word “democratic,” for which they consistently substituted “constitutional republic.” They also really disliked “capitalism” (see rather: “free enterprise system”) and “natural law” (“laws of nature and nature’s God”).


What Collins discovered was that this ideology was having a national impact in the USA because Texas is such a big market for textbooks and what can be sold to Texas can be mostly sold elsewhere. She quotes one expert saying that the proportion of social studies textbooks sold nationally that contain the basic Texas-approved narrative range from about half to 80 percent.

Books, printed books, usually expensive and arguably overpriced textbooks, are still bought in large quantities by students everywhere because they are a requirement. But elsewhere students look to the internet for information and what they will find there are barriers resulting from heavy, ideological influence from Xstianists. Recently joining the Xstianists at the digital barricades have been some other forces such as feminism.

The age of censorware

‘Censorware’ was the term coined by activists in the1990s to describe the type of software that was then starting to be deployed in schools and libraries to blocked certain websites and certain content, principally pornography.

Sites such as peacefire.org, set up in 1996 by then school boy Bennett Haselton, both promoted the tools for getting around barriers and documented the emerging, egregious impacts of censorware. His research formed part of the basis for work by NGOs such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in trying to stop the sort of non-porn, speech-silencing content blocking which today’s Texas school board would approve of.

In 1997 GLAAD published ‘Access Denied: An Impact of Internet Filtering Software on the Gay and Lesbian Community’. This showed that blocking of LGBT websites was systemic — a feature, not a bug. 16 years on from that report GLAAD in 2013 is still fighting censorware.

The EFF, now known as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has moved on and has widened its scope, such as recently fighting discriminatory impacts of background checks on NASA employees and taking a businessman who trademarked the term ‘gaymer’ to court. Today in the USA it is groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) still working on the ground against censorware in the USA, which is now mandated by American federal law in schools and libraries.

The ACLU run a ‘Don’t Filter Me’ campaign, which has succeeded in forcing many school districts to unblock access to LGBT websites and content, which includes resources for LGBT youth such as anti-bullying.

What they have found was the exact same issues which Haselton found in the 1990s, that this information was often being blocked ‘out of the box’, that the default option had a default, discriminatory effect.

Not just blocking lists of categorised websites but through language policing is how this software works. Not only discrimination results from this building in of anti-gay ideology through word blocking, there can also be bizarre impacts, such as automatically changing the name of Jamaican Olympic star sprinter Tyson Gay to ‘Tyson homosexual’.

Like with the commercial resonance of far-right-wing Texan textbook decisions, the default for commercial censorware providers comes from the same conservative and strongly Xstianist-influenced commercially safe place: a ‘family friendly’ default that just happens to have discrimination built in.

The ACLU found that schools and libraries would sometimes argue that students just need to ask for websites or web pages to be unblocked. Censorware providers say the same thing; it’s about ‘choice’, our customers can tweak our product. But this required, as one student told the ACLU, that often closeted youth ‘come out again and again’.

They found that websites (mostly run by Xstianists) promoting the dangerous, snake oil idea that it is possible to change sexual orientation were not blocked. Neither were those of groups campaigning against LGBT rights.

Wider research studies, as well as my own experience, shows that the use of censorware even in benign and LGBT friendly settings such as British local government still leads to the blocking of LGBT sites.

In one of their first court cases the ACLU battled the inclusion of non-sexual LGBT websites, such as those serving gay-friendly school clubs, in their censorware’s ‘pornography’ category. They found that bad or non-existent guidance led to schools ticking a category such as ‘lifestyles’ thinking it might have sexual content when it did not.

Underlining how software providers have anti-gay impact as a feature not a bug, the ACLU also found that many censorware providers had a specific LGBT category. In the public campaign they ran on the issue it was Xstianist front groups (those with ‘family’ in their titles) who opposed them arguing to keep the LGBT-excluding filters, helpfully provided by the manufacturers, and keep them ticked ‘on’.

In one major change from the experience from 16 years ago, the ACLU was able to persuade some software companies to actually eliminate the LGBT category, moving URLs into ’social science’ or ‘history’ for example. Others issued special guidance that the LGBT category had non-sexual content and schools must not select it.

But the ACLU’s work really just scratched the surface. Most censorware implementation goes unchallenged except by lonesome activists or brave kids. There is no regulation. No bodies like the European Union have it in their sights, speaking to the powerlessness of those effected compared to those demanding privacy controls or fighting multinational corporate dominance.

Selling online safety

When I first started writing about censorware over a decade ago I reported on how one company was marketing its product as a solution for parental fears in the immediate wake of the Columbine school massacre.

Argues Cory Doctorow:

[Censorware] firms are profiteers, waxing rich on the fears of the free world and the oppression of totalitarian states. They operate without transparency and without accountability, and hide behind the excuse that they only supply ratings, leaving firms and ISPs to do the dirty work of choosing which ratings to block – “we only load the pistol and aim it, it’s the mayor/your boss/a librarian who pulled the trigger”.

Many governments on the one hand try to promote that parents should become involved in how their children are using the internet but on the other reach for the panacea of filtering. Both politicians and software companies have an interest in selling a technological solution to what is really a human problem which cannot be so easily fixed and may end up causing more harm than good.

Fear drives the selling of censorware as a legal and business solution for corporate use of the internet as well, which can then backfire as a mobile phone company in the UK, a Canadian airport and McDonald’s in New Zealand found out. And fear also drives its take-up by governments to shut down disapproved viewpoints and pesky opposition forces.

Many software providers based in Western countries have been caught out in bad PR when their selling of their censoring solutions to countries like Iran (as Nokia Siemens was) is discovered. In a ironic twist on the all-pervasive international impact of censorware of Western origin, the company which used the Columbine massacre to drive sales was discovered by University of Michigan researchers in 2009 to have had its code stolen by a Chinese firm.

In Iceland, the latest drive for online censorship has a Nordic source behind the latest plea for mandated censorware. A proposed ban on pornography is motivated, say its advocates, not in Xstianist-style anti-sex impulses but in tackling sexual violence. It has come from the same Nordic movement which has criminalised those men who use prostitutes.

One Icelandic advocate told the Guardian that “what is under discussion is the welfare of our children and their rights to grow and develop in a non-violent environment”.

This sounds very similar to the arguments put forward for the national mandatory censorware which Australia only recently dropped plans for, after a decade long fight between politicians and their Xstianist allies on the one hand and a united front from industry (who said its implementation would slow internet speeds) and civil libertarians (who said it would chill free speech) on the other hand.

It is the latter group which appears to be the only ones coming out against Iceland’s plan. An open letter [PDF] to Iceland’s interior minister signed by a long list of organisations (including EFF) argues that “this level of government surveillance directly conflicts with the idea of a free society.”

The open letter does not mention how censorware impacts LGBT. Nor, in a point which needs to be made to people like the Nordic feminists proposing its use, does it mention its impact on things like sexual health, including for teenage girls.

The same broad blocking of ’sexual’ content which effects young LGBT can also hit teenage girls wanting reproductive advice or advice on predatory behaviour. Mobile phone providers in the UK were found to be blocking access to those sorts of websites as well as feminist websites through putting them in a ‘mature’ category.

This latest Icelandic plan has been picked up in the UK, according to the Guardian. They quote one of Britain’s leading charities against violence against children worrying about online porn and calling for adults to be forced to ‘opt-in’ to access to pornography — via a mandatory privatised national filtering system. Feminist-influenced left wing politicians in Britain have supported this idea.

As elsewhere in this debate, that British charity and those politicians, like the Icelandic feminists, seems either unaware of or uncaring about any negative effects from their anti-porn crusade. In this they, perhaps unwittingly, line-up with an industry influenced at birth and subsequently by Xstianist activists and whose sales only go up as the ’stop the internet I want to get off’ crusade is joined by more and more unthinking politicians.

Such alliances go back to well before even the 1990s birth of censorware and online porn panics, it goes back to the ones formed by some feminists with politicians and Xstians in the 1980s.

The difference now is that any argument that such alliances negatively impact LGBT was non-existent back then. Now we have nearly two decades of conclusive evidence that those organising against online porn really need to think hard about.

Have they considered how to ensure that young women and girls can still find the information and make the contacts they need? Do they think that having LGBT as collateral damage for their crusades is a price worth paying?