Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA), 13 fellow members of Congress, and over 20 organizations sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in late September urging officials to make sure that schools and libraries receiving federal funds do not block or limit access to websites with "important resources" for the LGBT community. Currently the FCC requires local libraries and schools to block sites that contain material that is "obscene; child pornography; or harmful to minors." Rep. Honda and the other signatories to the letter suggest that schools and libraries may be, intentionally or unintentionally, abusing the rules:
It has been reported to me that filtering software also can be used to block much more. Regrettably, Internet content filtering software can—intentionally or unintentionally—be used to block access to particular viewpoints in a discriminatory manner.
Rep. Honda, who founded and chairs the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus, cites studies that suggest LGBT individuals rely on the Internet more than the general public for social networking and anti-discrimination/anti-bullying resources. The letter to the FCC includes one example, a 2011 case in Missouri where a school district used a filter to block LGBT resources but not anti-LGBT material. That case was handled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the co-signing organizations supporting Rep. Honda's letter to the FCC. Other groups include the Human Rights Campaign, the Santa Clara County (CA) School District, the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute, and numerous LGBT groups, among others.
The letter comes at a time when the FCC is considering "modernizing" the E-Rate program, which "helps schools and libraries to obtain affordable telecommunications services, broadband Internet access and internal network connections." The program costs about $2.3 billion per year and requires grant recipients to adhere to certain guidelines, including the content restrictions mentioned in Rep. Honda's letter. The letter does not suggest exactly how the rules prohibiting material that is "obscene; child pornography; or harmful to minors" should be revised, but simply that "LGBT educational content should not be filtered in a discriminatory manner." Asked for clarification, Rep. Honda's office replied:
The purpose of the letter is two-fold: (1) raise awareness of the issue to the FCC; and, (2) encourage the FCC to address the problem through regulation or guidance to the Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees the E-rate program, or directly to public schools and libraries. The wording you referenced is the statute itself, which would require Congress to pass a law to modify. While the FCC considers its proposal to modernize the E-rate program, the Congressman believes a more practical solution is to ask the FCC to use its expertise--and its regulatory authority--to ensure our students and communities have access to critical LGBT resources at public schools and libraries.
When asked to comment on Rep. Honda's letter and the internet filter issue, the Family Research Council (FRC), an organization promoting family values and a Christian worldview, responded with a statement from Chris Gacek, senior fellow for regulatory affairs at the FRC:
Essentially, Honda wants to reduce the restrictions of the neutral filtering software to allow LGBT sexual content to reach public school and public library viewing screens. A portion of LGBT content is sexual in nature, and it is not surprising that some does not clear content filters. That said, the filters are entirely appropriate.
FRC opposes any effort to interfere with or lower the restrictions on sexual content reaching public schools and public libraries. First, the standard given above -- “obscene; child pornography; or harmful to minors” – is too low as it is. For example, a great deal of indecent or soft-core material might satisfy this standard. Thus, if regulations are to be issue by the Commission, the restrictions on sexual content should be tighter. Second, before issuing any regulations the Commission must include language that allows local communities to filter content up to the limit allowed by the federal statute.
The full text of Rep. Honda's letter to the FCC can be found here.