Companies respond to ACLU’s ‘Don’t Filter Me’ campaign

The ACLU has called for the removal of filters that block content in support of the LGBT community.

Web filtering software companies have started to respond to the American Civil Liberties Union’s call to remove filters that block websites with content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.

The ACLU has launched a national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, which seeks to remove censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems.

As part of its campaign, the organization has sent letters to several schools, asking them to reset their filtering software to stop blocking students’ access to such information, which it says is protected free speech. The ACLU also has contacted leading makers of filtering software, asking them to remove websites with content in support of the LGBT community from their block lists.

Lightspeed Systems was among the first to respond to the complaint, removing its “education.lifestyles” filter that blocked access to educational LGBT-related information.

According to the ACLU, many schools activated the filter mistakenly, believing that it blocked sexually explicit content, when in reality it blocked sites such as the Gay Straight Alliance Network; the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network; and the official website for the annual Day of Silence that protests anti-LGBT bullying.

Lightspeed told clients that it would discontinue the filter as of May 23, placing the sites currently in the “education.lifestyles” category into a variety of different categories in order to make sure the sites were properly categorized without regard to their “political or moral viewpoint.”

The ACLU identified the five following companies as other sites with filters designed to target LGBT-related content:

  • Blue Coat, which has a filter called “LGBT”
  • M86, which has a filter called “Lifestyle”
  • Fortiguard, which has a filter called “Homosexuality”
  • Websense, which has a filter called “Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual Interest”
  • URL Blacklist, which has a filter called “Sexuality”

Patrick Bedwell, vice president of product marketing at Fortiguard, said that the ACLU campaign was the first time he’d been alerted to the fact that his company’s “Homosexuality” filter blocked positive and supportive content from public school students, and promised action.

“We’re going to modify our operating system, and we’re going to change our filtering tools so that the explicit content is filtered out, and then the educational content that may have been filtered previously under ‘Homosexuality’ is not going to be filtered,” Bedwell said, adding that the company will remove the entire ‘Homosexuality’ category in its filtering engine.

Bedwell said that Lightspeed’s decision to edit its filtering software factored into Fortiguard’s decision to change its own web filter.

“It was just part and parcel of the Lightspeed action. We saw what the ACLU requested, saw the history on it, and we basically just reviewed all of the activity,” said Bedwell.

Websense senior vice president Michael Newman said his company reached out to the ACLU after hearing about the campaign.

“We think it is great that students in public schools across the country are getting involved in ensuring their schools and districts set their web filters up appropriately,” Newman said. “Out of the box, Websense filtering products do not block LGBT sites, but we believe that some public school system administrators override the default setting and block LGBT sites under the mistaken impression that they need to do so in order to block adult content.”

Newman said that Websense has a separate filter that blocks adult content and malware.

“Websense is working to make sure that our sales and support staff are aware of these issues and how U.S. public school customers can allow access to appropriate content and block inappropriate content,” he said.

However, Websense does not currently plan to abolish the “Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual Interest” category.

“Certain private organizations have a right to allow or prohibit access according to their own determination. Websense supports private organizations’ rights to determine their own web usage policies,” Newman said.

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