June 3, 1998 4:15 PM PDT

Antigay group blocked by filter

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In a conflict that pits accusations of intolerance against claims of free speech, the American Family Association is protesting a decision by a popular filtering software firm to block its Web site.

But in this case, the usual sides have been reversed. Web sites in the past have complained that their sites were filtered by software companies strictly because they contained what some would label pro-gay content. But in this case, a company is complaining that it is being filtered for the opposite reason: because its site contains what some would label antigay content.

The Learning Company, which sells Cyber Patrol filtering software, has included the AFA site on its CyberNot list of blocked Web sites.

The AFA has taken its case to the public with a widely circulated action alert on the matter.

The Learning Company said it blocked the AFA site because it met its criteria for the category of Intolerance. The company defines Intolerant sites as those containing "pictures or text advocating prejudice or discrimination against any race, color, national origin, religion, disability or handicap, gender, or sexual orientation. Any picture or text that elevates one group over another. Also includes intolerant jokes or slurs."

When contacted by CNET NEWS.COM, the Learning Company did not specify what portions of the site its researchers found objectionable. But the AFA said its site was pulled because it reflects the organization's views on the immorality of homosexuality.

The AFA does not oppose filtering per se, but spokesman Steve Ensley said his group was being singled out unfairly for blocking.

"Basically we're being blocked for free speech," Ensley said. "We don't teach intolerance on our site--we're expressing our beliefs. If we had a section on our site that could be interpreted as hate speech, we would take a hard look at that."

The AFA's alert lists a series of statements that the Learning Company cited as meeting its intolerance criteria, including several statements These include the following:

  • "Indifference or neutrality toward the homosexual rights movement will result in society's destruction by allowing civil order to be redefined and by plummeting ourselves, our children, and grandchildren into an age of godlessness."

  • "A national 'Coming Out of Homosexuality' provides us a means whereby to dispel the lies of the homosexual rights crowd who say they are born that way and cannot change."

  • "We want to outlaw public homosexuality...We believe homosexuality is immoral and leads ultimately to personal and social decay."

    The AFA appealed the Learning Company's decision to block it, and the second and final stage of its appeal will be heard on June 9.

    But the AFA expressed pessimism that its appeal will be successful. Company representatives have declined to attend the appeal hearing, citing travel costs, and instead the group is appealing to the public.

    Learning Company spokesperson Susan Getgood said that while her company took the appeals process seriously, she said the dispute was a tempest in a teapot.

    "Cyber Patrol is a product that people can purchase," Getgood said. "We've always believed that filtering software was about choice, including the choice on how parents or librarians filter. Parents can choose what they restrict and what they don't. And if you felt that we made a wrong decision, you could merely allow that site."

    Getgood also defended her company's appeals process. She said the outside advisory board that will hear the AFA's appeal next week was made up of 13 representatives from disparate groups across the political spectrum.

    But the AFA said the cards were stacked against it.

    "To our knowledge, only one of the groups represented supports our position," the AFA's Ensley said.

    That group is the Massachussetts chapter of Morality in Media, a national organization that combats blatant sexual content on television and radio, in print, and on the Internet.

    Robert Peters, president of the national group, said Cyber Patrol was targeting the AFA unfairly and that unless next week's meeting resulted in an AFA vindication he would end his group's membership in the Cyber Patrol advisory body.

    "I don't think Cyber Patrol is applying the same standard to both sides of the issue," Peters said, arguing that some pro-gay sites could be construed as equally intolerant toward religious groups.

    Peters said that if it were his decision, he wouldn't block pro-gay sites either as long as they weren't advocating hatred or violence. "But if you think a discussion of gay rights is inappropriate for small children, then block it all out," he said.

    The AFA's complaint is hardly the first for the Learning Company. The company has come under fire recently for blocking access to Deja News, a newsgroup cataloging and search site because of the content found in newsgroups. Others have protested the blocking of the University of California at Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology under Cyber Patrol's Alcohol & Tobacco category.

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