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The internet must be made safer for the LGBT community

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

Originally Published in The Mercury News, The East Bay Times, and, June 20, 2018

The LGBT community heard Mark Zuckerberg say Facebook would take responsibility for what happens on its network, but we need action, not just words.

The internet is the ultimate double-edged sword for our community. It can be an invaluable tool to safely and privately explore challenging subjects like

coming out and sexual health, access government services, and connect with the broader LGBT community. For LGBT youth – who are five times as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers – and especially those isolated in rural areas or unaccepting families, the ability to forge relationships and find support online can quite literally be a lifesaver.

But as we put more trust into the internet, we become more vulnerable to its failings. From Grindr’s breach of its users’ HIV status to school and library filters that block LGBT material to algorithms like Google’s “sentiment analysis” that treat being gay as bad, cyberspace poses special dangers for our community.

LGBT youth are three times as likely to be harassed online and nearly 60 percent have read something negative about themselves on the internet. And despite its massive profiling and surveillance capabilities, the tech giants seem unable or unwilling to do anything meaningful about this problem.

Instead, the vast digital panopticon is used almost exclusively to fuel targeted ads, which propel the internet’s economy but also create serious new dangers. We’ve all experienced “remarketing” where an internet search leaves a trail of related ads that follow us around online and even show up for others who share our computers. That’s annoying when it spoils a birthday surprise; it’s dangerous when it outs an LGBT teen to unaccepting parents.

We appreciate Zuckerberg’s promise to do better and are grateful that, in general, the big technology companies strongly support LGBT equality. But we need concrete policies to make the internet safer.

Those policies can only come from Congress. No state or locality can do it alone, and the ugly truth is that in the places where those laws are hardest to pass, they are needed the most. It has always been the mission of the federal government to speak for national values and defend the rights of outsiders and minority groups from local prejudice.

Zuckerberg’ and his fellow CEOs must help Congress understand these complex issues and move the policymaking process forward.

Many of them are outlined in a letter we recently sent to Congress joined by 50 leading civil rights organizations.

Those policies start with stronger privacy protections that allow users to share information with those they choose and not with those they don’t. That means clearer and stronger standards for encrypting and securing information against breaches and hacks, and more robust rules and penalties to ensure big datasets aren’t passed around in tech’s back rooms a la Cambridge Analytica.

We also needed a broader and richer understanding of net neutrality – one that covers social media and search platforms as well as internet providers so that no one can send LGBT users to the back of the digital bus or block access to websites or services featuring gay themes.

New policies must also address algorithmic discrimination and targeting practices in order to ensure malicious advertisers cannot shut out or overcharge gay customers while preserving the ability of good faith actors like the Trevor Project to efficiently reach relevant audiences and communities. And these rules must go further to ensure that digital advertising tools can never again be weaponized to divide Americans and pit different communities against each other as happened in our last election.

Many question whether Congress is up to this task. But every day new members from both parties come to the conclusion that something must be done. The internet is too important to ignore.

And so is the LGBT community.

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