The Internet: The New Frontier for Discrimination?
A growing number of corporations are silently installing software which controls the types of websites you frequent at work. Usually referred to as "Internet Filtering," these programs permit your employer (and believe it or not, some governments) to easily block certain categories of websites from landing on the desktops of their employees’ computers. They often include categories such as "Adult Content," "Drugs," "Games," "Gambling," "Non-traditional Religions," "Alcohol and Tobacco," "Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual Interest"...
Yes, hit that "reload" button. A leading company in the Internet Filtering space permits their clients to block websites that have Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Content. The name of the firm is Websense, and their software is installed in some twenty thousand (20,000) organizations in the world, boasting in their marketing materials to be the "preferred" vendor of the Fortune 500, and enjoys significant penetration into the educational sector as well. This translates into the bulk of the Internet Filtering market.
The issue came to my attention when users reported being unable to view EDGE at work; our sites were categorized into Websense’s database in the last few weeks as our traffic grew exponentially. As a legitimate news, entertainment and information website, we were curious: and so our reporters researched the issue by speaking both with users and with Websense’s corporate Public Relations department.
We discovered immediately that Websense is the only known vendor in this space that specifically targets Gay and Lesbian websites; they proudly point to such categorization as a feature which differentiates them from their competitors. In an aggregate database clearly labeling a minority as a target for blocking, however, one might also expect equally specific categorization surrounding race ("Black/African-American," "Asian," etc.) or nationality ("Italian," "Canadian," etc.) Said categories, and others like them, are conspicuously absent from the Websense database schema. In fact, Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals are the only minority specifically targeted by Websense.
If you work at a company that has installed Websense, and if that company has chosen to filter out Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual websites, you will receive a variant of the following warning:
"Access to the specified URL has been denied. The Websense category ’Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual Interest’ is filtered."
Companies may also track unauthorized access of filtered websites, as well as data about its employees’ usage in aggregate form. Depending on the interests of your employer, computer-based "outing" of gays/lesbians/bisexuals in the workplace have received the implicit nod of outward support both corporately and technologically from Websense; enabling, as it were, mass discrimination and disapproval against the culture of sexual freedom.
Arguments against Websense’s methodologies have been raging since at least 1999; no action has been taken against the company legally, nor has the company seen fit to remove this category from their database.
A call to Websense resulted in the promise of an interview with a spokesperson from the firm. The interview was cancelled at the last minute, replaced by the following statement:
"Websense has 90+ categories in our URL database. The categories are not intended to characterize any site or group of sites or the persons or interests who publish them. Similarly, the labels attached to Websense categories are convenient shorthand and are not intended to convey any opinion or attitude, approving or otherwise, toward the subject matter of the sites so classified.
Companies are not under any legal obligation to allow their employees to access every Web site available on the World Wide Web. It is up to each organization to decide which content they would like to be made available to their employees, and whether the site has legitimate business use."
This corporate finger-pointing is convenient, but remains discriminatory. Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual sites which contain nudity or offensive language can already be blocked via other categories in the Websense model; and so without any further information at this time, I am forced to conclude that this category remains in the database not because it is useful for blocking those sites which are offensive to corporations in that they decrease productivity, but merely because they are websites which contain materials which pertain to a certain minority of the population. A company which opts to discriminate in this surreptitious way is ethically suspect, and a company which delivers technology which enables discrimination in this surreptitious way should be held equally accountable.
In the coming weeks, EDGE will launch a political action section of our website; Websense will be an initial target for grass roots work. We hope our readers will help us answer the call to this cause... and others like it.
In the interim, don’t hesitate to contact Websense via phone at 800.723.1166 or via email at email@example.com and express to them your belief that this category serves no logical purpose in their database apart from the rapid enablement of discrimination in the workplace... and that it should be permanently removed.