Yesterday the ACLU announced that it has filed a lawsuit against a library in Salem, Missouri (download the full complaint) for using Internet filtering software that blocks websites pertaining to Wicca and Native American religions. As Ars Technica notes, sites blocked by the library’s software include Wikipedia’s page on Wicca, but not Christian-run pages that are critical of Pagan religions. According to the ACLU filing, Salem’s library director, Glenda Wofford, said “she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities.“ While there’s no doubt the press are paying attention to this story because of the “Witch” angle, I am extremely glad the “occult” category on Internet filtering software is finally being pushed into the spotlight.
“It’s unbelievable that I should have to justify why I want to access completely harmless websites on the Internet simply because they discuss a minority viewpoint. It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.” - Anaka Hunter, The Associated Press
The default option of filtering occult and Pagan websites is an issue I’ve followed at this site over the years, its existence tied directly to the fact that Internet filtering software was initially developed by and for the Christian market. As such, the inherent values of that demographic are imprinted into the DNA of the web-filtering industry. These programs are then sold to schools, libraries, and government institutions, which can lead to controversy and litigation once individuals realize the bias inherent in the filter. At this point those original biased filtering lists have long since permeated into the secular filter market. Sadly, many (though certainly not all) libraries, schools, and public institutions take a “block everything until someone complains” policy when it comes to this issue.
I sincerely hope that this case goes to trial, as it’s long past time the “occult” filter, which inevitably includes a raft of non-Christian religious sites, was eliminated from any secular context. If a local Catholic parish wants to block a Wikipedia search for Wicca, fine, but no library or school should be engaging in the default restriction of these sites. Nor should any secular institution be purchasing software that was built on the prejudices and misconceptions of conservative Christian list-makers.
Oh, and in a final note, you’ll be glad to know that The Wild Hunt has (so far) escaped being placed in the “occult” category by Netsweeper, the filtering software used by the Missouri Public Library.