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Why was Symantec filtering SFW LGBTQ content on public Wi-Fi?

Symantec just announced it would no longer give users the option to filter LGBTQ websites on public Wi-Fi, but why did it do that in the first place?


EJ Dickson


Following the fracas over Facebook’s drag queen name change policy, this hasn’t been a great week for LGBTQ people on the Internet. But there’s a silver lining in the form of a recent announcement by the Internet filter software company Symantec, which just revealed that it would no longer be giving administrators the option to use “LGBT content” as a toggle. In short: Public Wi-Fi administrators who use Symantec will no longer be able to block SFW LGBT-themed content on the Internet.

If you’re like me, you probably had two immediate reactions to this news: 1) “Hey, that’s awesome. Way to go, Symantec!” (A sentiment shared by GLAAD director Sara Kate Ellis, who told the San Jose Mercury News that Symantec “gets it”: “It’s time that our software reflects our values, and that means filtering out discrimination.”) And your second reaction was probably something like: “Wait, I didn’t know software companies were doing this in the first place. What gives?”

As it turns out, Symantec and other software filtering companies have given Internet admins the option to censor LGBTQ content, however innocuous it might be, on public Wi-Fi for years. This obviously had incredibly problematic for gay rights advocacy groups, who complained that the filter was automatically and needlessly lumping in gay and lesbian content with pornography.

Back in January, for instance, Internet users at an Au Bon Pain in midtown Manhattan complained that Symantec blocked public Wi-Fi access to SFW gay rights sites like the PFLAG homepage, as well as the website for Planned Parenthood. At the time, Joshua Block, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told DNAInfo that it was fairly common practice for family-friendly Web filters to block search terms for “LGBT” and “abortion” along with NSFW smut—despite the fact that there’s obviously nothing inherently NSFW about PFLAG or Planned Parenthood.

“When people first hear about the issue, they think this is just an over-sensitive filter that just around the edges sometimes sweeps up non-sexual material,” Block said. “These categories by definition are established to identify LGBT-related sites that do not otherwise qualify as pornography.”

Because public institutions like libraries and schools are required to install family-friendly Wi-Fi filters, that meant students looking up LGBT issues for, say, a school project were often unable to access such content. Thanks to Symantec’s new policy change, though, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning teens using public Wi-Fi at their schools or libraries will be free to surf the Internet as they please. It’s troubling this had been instituted earlier, but at least it’s been amended.

H/T Queerty | Photo by plantronicsgermany/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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