If you were gay and a recent passenger on American Airlines, you might have used in-flight Wi-Fi provided by Gogo just like any other customer. In the course of finding somewhere to stay before you land, you might have navigated to misterbnb.com, a version of Airbnb where customers looking for a place to stay can be guaranteed the hosts are gay-friendly. Rather than getting the site’s homepage, however, your browser would have kicked you to an interstitial page telling you the site had been censored by Gogo. The given reason would have been the site had been categorized as “adult-and-pornography.”
Looking at Misterbnb, there is nothing to trigger a pornography-centric filter on the homepage. The word “gay” appears a handful of times, but there is no salacious language, no risque photos, no video, not even any wild-card advertising space that could turn up a rogue Flash ad, photo, or video that runs counter to the tone of the site. “Travel gay friendly,” “build the gay travel community,” or “attend the next gay events” is about as hot as the site’s narrative gets. In total, the word “gay” appears 11 times in text on the site’s homepage.
Gogo and American Airlines are not the first Wi-Fi providers to be touchy about LGBT content; over the last year, a handful of businesses, including Au Bon Pain, Tim Horton’s, and McDonald’s, made minor news for not allowing their customers to view innocuous LGBT-centric websites, like GLAAD’s homepage.
Occasionally these incidents happen for regressive “family-friendly” reasons, where businesses cave to people who would be agitated by a reminder that gay people exist. But many businesses, including American Airlines, appear unsure why the Wi-Fi service they provide their customers prevents those customers from accessing otherwise innocuous LGBT-oriented sites.
Bob Witeck, a consultant for American Airlines on diversity matters, couldn’t speak to how the filters worked. “Does the word gay default to bad? Do they question it just because of that word? The answer is I don’t know,” Witeck said.
Even if the sites are otherwise widely available, Seth Adam, director of communications for GLAAD, points out that timing matters in terms of access to resources for help and reassurance, and conflating resources on gender identification and sexuality with “adult” content is worse than just being discriminatory. “Some of these resources are not only critical but potentially life-saving,” Adam said. “It poses a problem, a potentially life-threatening problem.”
Which party holds the attitude that “gay” content should be treated with caution is not clear from the outset. American Airlines is Gogo’s client, and Gogo is just a vector for providing a service to American’s customers. If a porn site pops up uninvited during a flight on some customer’s computer, the consumer relationship that would be at risk of damage would be between American and the flier. Hence, the expectation would be that American exerts control over what sites can and cannot be accessed.
But American’s representatives couldn’t give a clear answer on how a site gets blocked or why, per Witeck. After claiming that American exerts no control over its Wi-Fi filters, Martha Thomas, a spokesperson for American, said according to her sources it was definitely not because of the word “gay.” “The term gay is not either the category or the search term, it’s not something they filter,” Thomas said. She specified that the airline and Gogo are more than happy to whitelist sites like Misterbnb when they are uncovered, but Thomas couldn’t say more about why it had been blocked in the first place.
Without disclosing the stated reason for Misterbnb’s blockage, we reached out to Steve Nolan, a PR representative with Gogo, to ask what triggered it. At first, Nolan said that the site had been listed as “uncategorized” and blocked as a result. The same thing had happened to sites like kalsey.tv and ospreydata.com. “There are numerous examples of things that get caught for whatever reason,” Nolan said. He also noted that there was no “gay and lesbian” category that Gogo blocks.
When we brought up the “adult and pornography” classification, Nolan had no further explanation. “When we looked it up on our end, it shows that the site is uncategorized,” he said. “There are many sites that get wrongfully caught in the filter and when it’s brought to our attention, we work through Brightcloud to fix it.” Brightcloud is the content filtering service of Webroot, a business that provides security services to around a hundred large businesses, among them Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
Hal Lonas, the chief technical officer at Webroot, said that according to Webroot’s records, Misterbnb has been blocked since March 2013, supposedly for multiple uses of the word “lesbian.” “The count was pretty high,” Lonas said. Webroot uses a count of words like these to identify sites as containing “adult” content, and that one criteria alone is enough to get a site filtered. Since that time, according to Lonas, Misterbnb has been lingering in American Airline’s Gogo Wi-Fi content filter, waiting for someone to navigate to the site and then find the right person to speak to about the error.
Lonas told Ars that Webroot relies on keywords, apparently sometimes on keywords alone, to filter content. He said medical websites sometimes get caught in the filters the same way Misterbnb did, noting that Webroot does take complaints from partners or customers about what to whitelist or change in its approach. “We’re not anti-gay or anti-LGBT, we don’t have an agenda,” he said. “Of several hundred suggestions for changes (to filtering choices), four or five percent might be false positives.” Terms that surround gay culture just conveniently happen to be a statistically effective way of blocking pornography, according to Webroot.
Lonas regretted the false positives but said the situation had some commonalities with the one surrounding marijuana. “There are new norms around marijuana all the time,” he said. However, the fading taboo around marijuana is led by its increased use as medication; gender identity or sexuality will never get a similar savior.
Even the classification according to the word “lesbian” seems suspect: Misterbnb’s CEO and co-founder, Matthieu Jost, claims that “the website is the same” now as it was when the block was enacted, so he couldn’t speak to how instances of “lesbian” would have triggered Webroot’s filters. “The answers you have received are weird, as the website is dedicated mostly to ‘gay’ and not ‘lesbian,'” Jost told Ars. The oldest-available design of the homepage from July 2013 via archive.org shows a site with the same mission, no instances of the word “lesbian,” and nine instances of the word “gay.”
Misterbnb is unblocked now on American’s Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi. “It’s vexing for the customer experience,” said Witeck, to try to navigate to an innocuous site only to find their interests have been wrongfully shafted as distasteful. “We’ll use it as training material,” Lonas said of Misterbnb, in hopes that next time Webroot’s crawler will be ever so slightly less eager to banish an LGBT site to a porn category.