As hundreds of people emerge from this week's online children's summit in Washington, armed with filtering software to protect kids, one gay and lesbian group has a message for them: not so fast.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, GLAAD, released a report that rates Internet filtering software. It warns that some products label all gay and lesbian sites as pornographic, even those that just talk about AIDS or gay history.
"There's a message that Internet filtering software is the solution," said Loren Javier, GLAAD's interactive media director. "At this point, the technology is imperfect. It blocks AIDS and sex-orientation sites that aren't pornographic or explicit in any way."
The report said GLAAD supports protecting children from crime and blocking material that's not age-appropriate, but it warns that some features could do more harm than good.
The group is especially wary of an "auditing" feature contained in many products that tracks a child's Internet use. Javier said teens struggling with their sexual identity often turn to the Internet.
"It's a safe place where they can get information anonymously," Javier said. "Audit features can 'out' them before they're ready."
The report also warned that the software can block support sites for children of gay and lesbian parents, including the popular COLAGE, or Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere site.
The organization's protests already have led to changes among filtering software makers. Last year, Microsystems Software Inc., the maker of Cyber Patrol, added a GLAAD member to its oversight board after gay groups lodged protests about the software's blocking methods. Two years ago, Spyglass Inc., the makers of SurfWatch Software, responded to GLAAD complaints by stopping the censorship of gay and lesbian educational sites.
In its report, GLAAD gave high marks to filtering software from both companies as well as Net Nanny Software International Inc., though it criticizes Net Nanny's auditing feature.
However, GLAAD bashes Solid Oak Software Inc.'s Cybersitter, which Javier called "homophobic."
Cybersitter, which came under fire earlier this year for blocking sites including NOW, said its conservative reputation actually helps its bottom line.
"That has driven our sales to some extent -- the fact that we have admittedly blocked gay and lesbian sites, that we have blocked NOW," Solid Oak spokesman Mark Kanter said. "Our tests show that most parents don't want their children seeing that material."
Ironically, conservative groups like many of the same products as GLAAD. This month's issue of Citizen, a magazine published by the conservative group Focus on the Family, gives Cyber Patrol and Surfwatch the highest ratings among filtering software. But the group is also a reseller of Cybersitter.
Unlike GLAAD, many conservative organizations approve of the product's auditing component.
"When kids live in their parent's home, the parents have a right to monitor their children's behavior," said Rebecca Biles, a spokeswoman for the conservative Family Research Council.
She said the tracking features can encourage dialogue between parents and children about sites they've visited.
But that won't work in homes that frown upon homosexuality, the GLAAD report said. Instead, the report encourages filtering companies to stop auditing and start developing standard methods for rating all sites, not just gay and lesbian ones.