The internet is the ultimate double-edged sword for the LGBT community. It can be an invaluable tool to safely and privately explore challenging subjects like coming out and sexual health. For LGBT youth — who are five times as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers — forging relationships and finding support online can be a lifesaver.
But as we put more trust in 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 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 their massive profiling and surveillance abilities, the tech giants seem unable or unwilling to do anything meaningful about it.
We are grateful that, in general, the big technology companies support LGBT equality. But we need specific policies to make the internet safer. Those policies can only come from Congress. Fortunately, while the internet is complicated, most of the policy changes that we seek are not. Many of them are outlined in a letter we sent to Congress joined by 50 civil rights organizations.
The 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. We also need 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 also must address algorithmic discrimination and targeting practices — to ensure malicious advertisers cannot shut out or overcharge gay customers. And these rules must go further to ensure that digital advertising tools can never again be weaponized to divide Americans as happened in our last election.
Many question whether Congress is up to this task. But the internet is too important to ignore. And so is the LGBT community.
Chris Wood is executive director of LGBT Tech, a non-profit group.