American Airlines Blocks LGBT Websites From Its Wi-Fi, But Isn't Exactly Sure How
One of the best things about moving forward in the 21st century? Wi-Fi on airplanes. One of the worst? When tech changes don't keep up with social ones. According to a report from Ars Technica, American Airlines blocked a gay website, Misterbnb, from its in-flight WiFi as recently as this year. Worse? They couldn't even figure out why it was blocked, or who was to blame.
The site in question: Misterbrb. It's a gay-friendly version of Airbnb — the kind of website that, were you a gay traveller on a trip to somewhere new, you might peruse while on the airplane. To check out the suggestions for gay-friendly neighborhoods, or double-check your booking. You certainly wouldn't expect the page to come up with a big WEB PAGE BLOCKED sign, the reason offered being that the site is in the "adult and pornography" category.
As Ars reports it though, that's exactly what's been happening to passengers on American Airlines. Misterbnb has been blocked since March 2013, but the weirdest part is, no one seems to know — or admit to knowing — why. Apart from using the word "gay" a bunch of times (shock horror!), the site has very little to set itself apart from its (much larger) non-gay counterpart, Airbnb. Certainly nothing salacious. Certainly nothing pornographic.
Reporter Casey Johnston tried to get to the root of the issue, going first to American Airlines (who had no clue at all), to the in-flight internet service provider, Gogo (who maintained that the site had been blocked for being "uncategorized," even after the journalist pointed out the clear "adult-and-pornography" classification). So the blame then got shifted onto Webroot, Gogo's security-service company. They had an even less satisfying explanation for the ban.
Webroot's chief technical officer, Hal Lonas, told Ars that the site had been flagged for recurrent uses of the word "lesbian," and that a high count of the word can cause the site to be classed under "adult," (because everyone knows a lot of lesbians means a lot of sex?!) even if there's nothing else pornographic about the page. In other words, the filtering swept up the site accidentally. He added:
The count was pretty high. We're not anti-gay or anti-LGBT, we don't have an agenda. Of several hundred suggestions for changes (to filtering choices), four or five percent might be false positives.
The strange thing about their explanation? There really aren't that many counts of the word "lesbian" on the page, and it certainly didn't get used more often after 2013. Whatever the real reason, though, chances are, if the website was blocked by Gogo on an AA flight, it's also been blocked on all the other airlines that use Gogo, like Delta, United, and U.S. Airways.
Not only that, but if the ban really was an accidental sweep flagged by the (minimal) use of the word "lesbian," just imagine all the other sites that get banned — not just the major ones like GLAAD, but even, say, Bustle. We proudly use the word "lesbian" a ton.
On AA, Misterbnb has since been unblocked, but the issue is still pertinent. Between WiFi providers who intentionally ban gay content (such as Au Bon Pain, which, Jesus, don't even get me started) and WiFi providers that do so accidentally, the message is clear: Queer content is still, infuriatingly, considered transgressive.