In response to the swell of free speech and online privacy issues threatening its community, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has named Will Doherty director of online community development to help align the group with Silicon Valley heavyweights and nationwide officials who are shaping Net policy.
Doherty's tech-savvy background dates back to his work on the Arpanet, precursor to the Internet. In his newly formed position, he is charged with a three-part agenda: to prevent his constituents' voices from being quashed by technological filters; to combat hate speech on the Net; and to shield online privacy, which the alliance says is critical for the safety of its community.
War-torn Netizens are making progress on Capitol Hill to establish broader privacy protections for online users, and Vice President Al Gore is expected to make the issue a component of his presidential campaign. But Doherty said for those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, the issue is not just upholding civil rights--it's truly a matter of life or death.
"We start out as isolated people who have not yet found our community, and the Internet has traditionally been a way to find that and resources," Doherty said.
"But there are implications. It's not just a matter of inconvenience or a monetary threat; there is danger for harassment and possible physical violence as a result of privacy violations," he added. "We are trying to be proactive so that [our] concerns are taken into account."
In one high-profile privacy breach, an America Online customer service representative revealed to the U.S. Navy the sexual orientation of one of its officers, Timothy McVeigh, who had identified himself as gay in his AOL profile. McVeigh, who is not related to the convicted Oklahoma City bomber of the same name, was subsequently discharged and then reinstated after a legal challenge and a firestorm of public protest.
"The Timothy McVeigh case helps underscore the importance of this privacy issue for the gay and lesbian community, but groups all across the Net feel the need for more privacy safeguards," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Along with pushing Net companies to post their data collection and usage practices, Doherty said he's in favor of blanket privacy protections for Net users. Other advocates agree.
"You can be fired in 39 states for being gay, so it's essential that we educate our members about privacy," said Megan Smith, CEO of the Net community PlanetOut.
GLAAD already has taken some steps, such as signing on to a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Intel when it was discovered that the company's latest chip could track computer users' travels on the Net.
The alliance also plans to tackle other policy issues, including curtailing mandatory Net filtering proposals.
Starting with the Communications Decency Act, federal and state lawmakers have been anxious to cut off children's access to pornography and other "indecent" online material. When most of that law was overturned by the Supreme Court in June 1997, officials as high as the White House began pushing the use of blocking software to bar minors' entry to the Net's red-light districts.
But filtering technologies are known to screen out content that is not pornographic and often don't make their lists of blocked sites public. Moreover, the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, John McCain (R-Arizona), is championing a bill that would require schools and libraries that receive federal Net access subsidies to use content-filtering software.
"The current state of filtering technology is not sophisticated enough to separate innocuous content about gays and lesbians while attempting to get rid of content that could be damaging to children such as pornographic, violent, or hateful content," Doherty said, citing GLAAD's Access Denied report, which described faults in filters.
Although blocking technologies are improving, it's no secret that content about gays and lesbians often is barred by them.
"Our experience is that behind the crusade against Net pornography often is a conservative political agenda that also opposes information about homosexuality. There also are many problems with proposed filters," EPIC's Rotenberg said.
But some filtering companies say their products give consumers choice and don't censor content about people's sexual orientation.
"I've had personal conversation with the directors of GLAAD, but we've always had an open-door policy, and people can use [our filter] as they want and tailor it how they want," said Gordon Ross, chief executive of the NetNanny filtering software company. "Once you own NetNanny you can view the sites that it blocks. You can set it up so you can only go to gay and lesbian sites if you so choose."
PlanetOut, for one, is a plaintiff in the case against the Child Online Protection Act, which was passed by Congress last year and makes it a crime for commercial Web sites to give minors access to "harmful material." A federal judge stalled the law in November.
At the same time, however, filters have been key to screening out hate speech, which GLAAD says is even more prevalent with the explosion of the Net. PlanetOut says that 2 to 3 percent of the email it gets is hateful.
"It's a tough issue because it's important that gay and lesbian youth get access to parts of our site that can help them because they are double the national average for risk, from drug abuse to getting beat up and committing suicide," PlanetOut's Smith said.
Activists hope GLAAD's new focus will turn the heat up on policy makers to listen to their community, but they're expecting a drawn-out struggle.
"When it comes to all these issues, we are always right on the frontlines," Smith noted.