Friday, February 13, 2009

Breaking the Cycle – Blocked LGBT Emails and Websites

Last Friday I had the great pleasure of being invited to speak at the launch of the North West Region's LGBT strategy, "Breaking the Cycle".

(You can watch a video of my speech here)

"Breaking the Cycle" was researched and published by the principal LGB charity in the region, the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF).

LGF's Chief Executive, Paul Martin, explained how the strategy was named in recognition of the core finding from his organisation's extensive research. LGF concluded that progress to advance equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans people in society is continually blocked by a vicious circle of institutionalised factors which 'lock in' disadvantage and actively prevent any significant advance.

  • A lack of robust evidence and needs analysis gives rise to
  • Limited knowledge of LGB&T needs, which means that
  • LGB&T issues are not seen as priorities or funded, so that
  • There is a lack of capacity within LGB&T organisations to develop robust evidence of need.

The strategy sets three key strategic aims to reflect this:

  1. To develop the evidence base, by lobbying for funding to develop it, and by supporting LGB&T groups to access and make best use of what exists;
  2. To increase the knowledge and engagement of policy and decision makers across the region (and ensure the needs of LGB&T people are accurately communicated); and
  3. To increase the capacity of LGB&T voluntary and community organisations.

These three core aims are accompanied by 32 separate action recommendations, which each relate to one or more of the key barriers.

The existence of these barriers is readily apparent in the lack of even the most basic data: nobody knows for sure, for instance, just how many lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans people there are.

LGF estimates there are 612,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans folk among the North West's 6.8 million people. This places the LGBT community at almost the same size as the region's black and minority ethnic (BME) population: 650,000.

Martin also points to the tiny number of LGBT charities in England, compared with the corresponding numbers of voluntary and community sector organisations specialising in other areas such as race or disability.

In his summing up at the launch he highlighted that one of the most obvious and restrictive institutional barriers would be encountered in simply trying to advertise the strategy. Most public authorities have electronic 'firewalls' and email filters that are programmed to bar any communications or web site traffic with words such as 'lesbian' or 'gay'. News of the strategy might not even arrive!

A call for action

Today (13th Feb) LGF has taken the first step to challenge this most pernicious barrier. In a letter to the Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Nicola Brewer, Paul Martin calls for the Commission to launch an enquiry into the practice of blocking such material.

He says,

"Lesbian & Gay Foundation have experienced a number of significant issues with public sector computer system 'firewalls' when sending electronic communications, and public sector staff have often experienced real challenges when accessing our online resources, including our website, for some considerable period of time. A major factor which prevents our emails getting through is due to the name of our organisation containing both the words 'lesbian' and 'gay'."

Explaining the problems created, he adds

"As every single email footer at the LGF contains the words lesbian and gay, our emails are often automatically quarantined by the filter system, which therefore means we have to contact IT departments to advise that our email does not contain adult or inappropriate content when we send an email."

And, pointing to the lack of concern for these problems, he remarks

"Often, if feels that IT staff can be very 'blasé' and dismissive about the fact that these communications are quarantined and are sometimes not responsive to our requests to change the filters or amend the systems"

To support the case Martin cites several quotes from his own staff, frustrated by the extra effort they are required to make

"I have trouble getting emails through to a number of my key contacts. Apparently they have 'high security set ups' in many places which constantly block my access."

"I know I have had problems going straight into people's spam accounts. I think because of the words in our address with some contacts."

"Network Rail treat all LGF emails as Spam. This is extremely difficult when booking rail tickets."

"We were asked to comment on an initiative Victims and Witnesses, run by the Home Office and when we e-mailed our submission a standard e-mail response followed informing us that our content was inappropriate."

"Children's Services, our partners in Exceeding Expectations newsletter, have blocked our e-mails meaning partners cannot read drafts etc."

It is not just LGF staff who have difficulties either. Martin points to quotes from partners who cannot access LGF's materials for the same reasons

"Many thanks for sending the electronic version of IMPACT. I am afraid I cannot access it at work as it is being blocked. Is there any other way I can access it please?"

"I did receive the December issue online but I can't access this month, as my Forti guard (!?) won't allow me."

"A friend of mine whose girlfriend works in social services was unable to provide a list of contacts for someone having issues around their sexual orientation as they're unable to do it in work. She had to take the notes home and do the searches from home."

"I was unable to download the newsletter as our filtering policy has blocked the site- which they say is for downloading music. I have submitted an unblocking request together with a request to see the equality impact assessment of the filtering policy. The latter because it seems to me that LGB and T sites are blocked more frequently than others."

Ending his message Paul Martin calls upon the EHRC to launch an enquiry into "this unfair and unjust practice" and, using their powers, "find a way to resolve this situation we find ourselves in".

The only flaw, perhaps, in Paul Martin's approach is that – yes, you guessed – he sent his message to Nicola Brewer in an email.

1 comment:

Caspar Aremi said...

I think these organisations should be named & shamed! It's only then they'll wake up and realise they're discriminating (hopefully unintentionally...).

Happy to report at Dept of Health has no restrictions on any website I've tried to visit.