Services & Software

Gays debate whether Net is friend or foe

A panel of Internet professionals debates the benefits and pitfalls of the Net to lesbians and gays and to the political movement advancing their interests.

SAN FRANCISCO--In an Information Age paradox, the key to lesbian and gay political power may be invisibility.

That was one conclusion drawn by a panel of Internet professionals who met here Friday evening to debate the benefits and pitfalls of the Net to lesbians and gays, and to the political movement advancing their interests.

"This is the first medium in history to uniquely address the needs of the lesbian and gay community," said Tom Rielly, founder and chairman of PlanetOut (a self-described "community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people worldwide") and cofounder of advocacy group Digital Queers. "This is the first time a closeted person can participate fully in the lesbian and gay community without fearing losing their job, their home, and their family."

Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) executive director Joan Garry expressed the paradox another way: "The Internet is the only place in America where you can be openly closeted."

(GLAAD and Digital Queers recently merged.)

These declarations illustrate at least a rhetorical about-face for lesbian and gay advocacy groups, who long have pinned their hopes for political power on the willingness of lesbian and gay people to publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation. Coming out, according to this line of thought, is supposed to soften homophobic attitudes as people interact with lesbians and gays on a one-to-one basis, and to let lesbians and gays be counted as a coherent block with electoral and economic power.

Along with the promise of anonymity, the Internet has given closeted people a crucial entrée into lesbian and gay life--politically, socially, and sexually.

In the political arena, panel members cited the Internet's ability to amass sheer numbers of self-identified lesbians and gays as a potential stepping stone to political power.

PlanetOut's Rielly noted that his Web site had about 500,000 members--more than double the membership of the nation's largest gay-themed publication or civil rights group. Once membership rolls approach 1 million, organizations begin to wield significant influence on a national scale, Rielly said, citing the Christian Coalition as an example.

On the economic front, gays and lesbians long have attracted the interest of marketers and service providers. America Online owed its survival in the early years to heavy use by gays and lesbians, according to panelist Kara Swisher, reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of the book How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made Millions in the War for the Web.

"Steve Case said, 'Thank God for the gays and lesbians,'" according to Swisher, noting that use of the online service by gays was particularly heavy in sexually themed chat rooms.

Sex online has proved to be a double-edged sword for lesbians and gays on the Internet. On the one hand, the Net has provided some with a means of sexual expression that may not be available to them in their daily lives. On the other hand, a search for "lesbian" on a search engine is likely to turn up far more heterosexually oriented pornography than community resources.

On this score, PlanetOut's Rielly said his group was working with search technology provider Excite--which powers both its own search engine and that of Netscape Communications' Netcenter portal site--to fix the search results problem.

But online sex--of all orientations--also has fueled one of the only profitable businesses on the Internet. Analysts call Internet pornography a billion-dollar-a-year-and-growing industry, and that doesn't count the more social content found in chat rooms and elsewhere.

Another area in which gays and lesbians intersect with profits is financial services.

E*Trade is assiduously courting lesbian and gay traders, said panel member Michael Pohlman, the online brokerage's vice president of strategic business development.

"In order to be successful, we need to target individual traders and affinity groups so we can focus the E*Trade message," said Pohlman. "And the technology enables us to do that." Pohlman cited partnerships between E*Trade and PlanetOut, as well as plans to build gay-themed areas within E*Trade.

One example of a gay-friendly E*Trade feature is allowing users to set up accounts for domestic partners.

E*Trade is not alone in targeting the lesbian and gay community online. One Web-based financial services firm, the Gay Financial Network, launched this year with the express mission of serving gay and lesbian users.

But beyond all the promises of profit and political viability, the Internet poses its share of threats, panel members acknowledged.

Several panelists mentioned the Online Child Protection Act, also known as "CDA II," as a significant threat to freedom of expression online, and consequently to lesbian and gay community growth on the Internet.

CDA II makes it a federal crime for commercial Web sites to give minors access to "harmful material." That includes sexually explicit communication, and panel members warned that information having to do with gay and lesbian issues could be implicated under the law.

The provision's advocates claim that content providers could use credit card information as a way of ascertaining that those who visit a Web site are adults. But panel members said such a system of identification would rob the Internet of its sense of anonymity, which is so crucial to its role as a tool for closeted lesbians and gays.

"CDA II will scare off the people we most need to serve," Rielly said. In addition to deterring closeted adults, Rielly said, the system would shut out lesbian and gay youth, who are often the most isolated and in need of positive information about homosexuality.

Another threat to virtual visibility for gays and lesbians online is blocking software--originally conceived as a way to mollify parents and political leaders anxious to prevent children from seeing sexually explicit material online.

"We know that blocking software is blocking a huge number of sites that are important to the gay and lesbian community," said panel member Ann Brick, staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Brick cited a GLAAD report on blocking software that concludes that "the advent of Internet filtering software...and ratings systems mean cyberspace is poised on the edge of doing to gay men and lesbians what the CDA was prevented from doing--rendering us invisible."

And the Internet poses still other threats to gays and lesbians online, particularly in the area of privacy. The sense of anonymity that closeted gays and lesbians may have online could be deceptive, panelists said, since most of what gets written and sent over the Internet can be tracked and recovered indefinitely.

In one high-profile privacy breach, AOL violated its own privacy policy by revealing to the U.S. Navy the sexuality of one of its officers, Timothy McVeigh, who had identified himself as gay in his online profile. McVeigh, who is not related to the convicted Oklahoma City bomber of the same name, was subsequently discharged, then reinstated after a firestorm of public protest and a legal challenge.

Even without a privacy policy violation, communications on the Internet are hardly private and often are permanently recorded.

"Email never dies," noted the Wall Street Journal's Swisher. "You can't delete it. Microsoft may lose its [antitrust] case because of email. If Bill Gates's email can be read, so can yours."