When Loren Javier, interactive media director at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, heard that the Web browser included with the Sega Saturn game console allowed users to filter for sites containing information on "alternative lifestyles," he was wary.
Javier figured that the browser would allow parents to filter out "extreme" sites, like cults. But when he looked at the PlanetWeb browser used in the game box, his fears were realized. One option on the browser allows parents to filter for gay content--not just that containing sex, violence, or even heavy-handed politics--but gay content, period.
The setting to which GLAAD objects allows parents to filter out "Information regarding gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender subjects presented in an impartial, informative manner," according to the content filtering glossary on the PlanetWeb page.
The controversy shows how muddied the waters are in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to reject the Communications Decency Act.
Apparently, there is nothing illegal about what PlanetWeb is doing, but many will debate about the morality and efficiency of filtering and how filtering is done. In other words, gone are the comforting days of black-and-white issues, where Netizens were either for or against the CDA, according to cyberlibertarians.
Now, these issues are a confusing shade of gray. If nothing else, this case illustrates just how difficult it will be to grapple with issues of censorship vs. parental control.
"It's easy to oppose the CDA, said David Sobel, staff counsel to Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Now we're going to get into the difficult stuff."
Ken Soohoo, founder and chief technology officer for PlanetWeb, said the company simply is allowing parents the option of filtering for something they personally find offensive, much in the same way that they might filter against hate sites.
"The basis for technology is simply to provide blocking for certain categories of content on the Web, and this just happens to be one of them," he said.
As far as Javier is concerned, however, the right thing to do is to protest any program that allows people to filter out an entire category of people.
Merely including the category as an option "is sending a message that there's something implicitly wrong with homosexuality," he said. "It's grouping us an ideology rather than a community."
Soohoo pointed out that gay subjects are only one of the subjects PlanetWeb filters. Also included in categories are nudity, speech/content, politics, religion, and sex. Parents have a choice whether to filter, he added. "We're selling a service to a parent, and if they request it we deliver it. I make no apologies for it."
But Javier countered that, while he could understand filtering for sex or even strong ideology, he said gays are not a subject. They're a community, so he likens filtering for gays to filtering for another kind of community. He imagined that, if the same technology were around 40 or 50 years ago, it might have been used to filter out content generated by civil rights or certain ethnic groups.
Soohoo said that he never would filter out a certain racial or ethnic group. "We're not in the business of selling prejudice here."
Javier disagrees. He worries that this kind of program could be a harbinger of what could be coming down the line from other companies.
Up to now, the gay community has found a special haven on the Net, with freedoms unparalleled in the physical world. Javier is concerned that with filtering programs, the community could lose all that.
"The Internet is a place where our community thrives," he said. "We have a lot of information out there, and if we're not looking out we could become even more invisible than we are on other media."
Legally, however, there's really nothing Javier can--or even should do, EPIC's Sobel said.
On the one hand, Sobel warns about speech being curtailed. "These are the kinds of decisions that are going to be made, and increasingly, the Internet is not going to be the open forum of ideas that it has been. This kind of technology will really sanitize the content to the point that it's really not much different than the existing mainstream media.
"I agree with GLAAD. That doesn't mean that the government should come and shut down what the company is doing."
Sobel advocated online communities that cater to a specific community. But that's only one option in a world where answers don't come easily. "We're all going to have to fight out these value issues and come to some agreement about what is the right thing to do and what isn't."