Archives For filtering software

Here are some quick updates on stories previously reported on at The Wild Hunt.

Shield_230x140.jpg_1951677811In July of last year, I reported on rumblings in the UK over the possibility that new governmental policies over filtering obscene adult content on the Internet would affect non-obscene sites, including occult-oriented pages. Now, these parental controls are indeed being shown to over-block sites that having nothing to do with porn, including a news site that deals with the world of torrenting and piracy. Quote: “What happened? The broader context is that the UK government’s launched a war on internet porn, with ISPs blocking porn sites unless users specifically opt-in to access them. but TorrentFreak says that lots of other sites are getting caught in the censorship net – ‘hate sites,’ gore, dating sites, and TorrentFreak itself.” TorrentFreak was officially un-blocked by the ISP, though that hasn’t stopped the site from calling these filters a “blunt instrument that is prone to causing collateral damage and known for failing to achieve its stated aims.” So far, from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like Pagan or occult sites are being filtered (though this should be monitored by folks in the UK who use various ISPs), but these stories do point to the fact that initial concerns were not unfounded. We’ll keep an eye out for further developments.

Fran and Dan Keller — photo by Debbie Nathan

Fran and Dan Keller — photo by Debbie Nathan

Back in December I wrote about the release of several incarcerated victims accused of “Satanic” ritual abuse, and the ongoing, ugly, legacy of the Satanic Panics. Now, Slate has published an excellent, in-depth article about Fran and Dan Keller, recently freed after 20 years in prison, and moral panics that ruined hundreds of lives. Quote: “The seeds of the panic were planted with the 1980 publication of Michelle Remembers, the best-selling account of a Canadian psychotherapist’s work with a woman named Michelle Smith, who, under his care, began recalling forgotten memories of horrific childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her mother and others who were part of a devil-worshipping cult. The book, though riddled with fantastical claims (for example, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Archangel Michael healed Smith’s physical scars), launched a cottage industry in recovering memories of satanic ritual abuse. (The psychotherapist and Smith later married.)” As the article mentions, the problem with panics is that most never realize they were in one until after the fact. Let’s hope that this particular panic has finally run its course in our society. You can read many of my thoughts, and reporting, on this topic, here.

-7e3949c270db2aa2I’ve recently highlighted, on a couple different occasions, that the famous tomb of Vodou/Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau in New Orelans was painted pink by an unknown person (though there are theories). Now, preservationists are unhappy with the restoration work being undertaken by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, alleging that the pressure washing techniques are causing damage. Quote: “Angie Green, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit group that works to preserve historic cemeteries throughout the city, saw someone blasting Laveau’s tomb with a high-pressure water gun she said she immediately called the Archdiocese. ‘Pressure washing is terrible for any old building,’ Green said. […] Green is also concerned that once the pink paint is removed, the Archdiocese will cover Laveau’s tomb in Portland cement, the most common kind of cement used around the world. The most effect technique used to repair tombs and preserve their historic look is by using lime-based mortar and plaster and then coating the tomb in a lime wash, Green said.” Laveau’s tomb is a tourist icon and place of religious pilgrimage in New Orleans, and that is making this process, no doubt, a more sensitive ordeal than a normal restoration job. As for the press attention, no doubt Marie Laveau’s recent pop-culture resurgence has made press outside of New Orleans take notice.

1979 re-release era poster.

1979 re-release era poster.

I just want to quickly mention that January 7th finally saw the U.S. blu-ray release of the restored “Final Cut” of 1973 cult cinema masterpiece “The Wicker Man.” This new, restored, version was announced back in July of 2013, and a special 3-disc edition was released at the end of 2013 in the U.K. (the lucky beggars). I’ve written about this film so often, that you could spend a good day going through the Wicker Man tag here at The Wild Hunt, so I’ll be brief. The new blu-ray is essentially the “middle” length version that played in art houses during the late 1970s and 1980s in America, it lacks the extended mainland sequence at the beginning, but does have scenes the “extended” version doesn’t have. The picture quality is superb (for a film of this era), and you’ll not get anything better in HD so long as the original masters remain lost to legend and rumor. I’m hoping that we Americans will see a multi-disc set eventually, so we can have a “branching” version that incorporates the lesser quality extended cut sequences, as the UK set includes. For now, however, this is well worth any fan of this film picking up and re-enjoying. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment to keep…

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

I’ve long taken a keen interest in the business of Internet filtering, and how its genesis with conservative Christian social values have reverberated far beyond that niche market. However, Internet filtering issues aren’t isolated to America, and the UK is currently embroiled in a controversy over mandatory “opt-out” filters for adult content.

David Cameron

UK Prime Minister David Cameron

“Most households in the UK will have pornography blocked by their internet provider unless they choose to receive it, David Cameron has announced. […] Mr Cameron warned in a speech that access to online pornography was “corroding childhood”. The new measures will apply to both existing and new customers. Mr Cameron also called for some “horrific” internet search terms to be “blacklisted”, meaning they would automatically bring up no results on websites such as Google or Bing.”

That announcement last week was enough to generate a lot of debate over access to information,  which only intensified when it was discovered that the filtering company that would implement Prime Minister Cameron’s deal with the four biggest ISPs was Chinese firm Huawei.

“The [Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC)] committee said ‘the alleged links between Huawei and the Chinese State are concerning, as they generate suspicion as to whether Huawei’s intentions are strictly commercial or are more political’ – but added that it had not found any evidence of wrongdoing.”

On top of that, was a troubling revelation that the “opt out” filter may be filtering a lot more than porn.

“The essential detail is that they will assume you want filters enabled across a wide range of content, and unless you un-tick the option, network filters will be enabled. As we’ve said repeatedly, it’s not just about hardcore pornography.”

One of those filtering categories? According to Open Rights Group, “broad indications” from ISPs point to “esoteric material” being one of the default opt-out filtering categories. This broader opt-out mandate is being reported by Wired and The Huffington Post, though no further details about what, exactly, would be included in an “esoteric material” category.

“What’s clear here is that David Cameron wants people to sleepwalk into censorship. We know that people stick with defaults: this is part of the idea behind ‘nudge theory’ and ‘choice architecture’ that is popular with Cameron. […] The implication is that filtering is good, or at least harmless, for anyone, whether adult or child. Of course, this is not true; there’s not just the question of false positives for web users, but the affect on a network economy of excluding a proportion of a legitimate website’s audience.” – Jim Killock, Open Rights Group

Which brings us back to the genesis of Internet filtering, the confluence of socially conservative religious groups and Internet policy. Where will the site lists for default blocked categories come from? Will they, like some institutional filters, block Pagan sites? A long history of Pagan engagement with these filters points to it being a reasonable assumption. The trouble is that we most likely won’t know until the filter is already in place, and Cameron has intimated that he was willing to legislate compliance if the ISPs balk at his plan. For now, Open Rights Group has launched a petition to stop David Cameron from “sleepwalking into censorship.”

“Adult filtering amounts to censoring legal content. The UK would be the only modern democratic society to do this. This sets a terrible example to other countries with interests in suppressing information.”

We don’t know, exactly, what will and won’t be blocked once the filters are enabled. It could vary among providers. The list printed by Open Rights Group is based on “brief conversations with some of the Internet Service Providers” that will be putting the filters in place. According to ORG, “they [the ISPs] will assume you want filters enabled across a wide range of content,” and “esoteric material” is a default category gleaned from “broad indications” and “current mobil configurations.” Sophia Catherine, of the Divine Community podcast, warns against over-reaction.

“Open Rights have NOT said that ‘esoteric content’ will be censored. This is a misinterpretation of their article, which has been doing the rounds online for a couple of days, and which they have edited their article in an attempt to counter. I quote from their article on the subject: “The category examples are based on current mobile configurations and broad indications from ISP” (i.e. this is a guess based on a few informal trend), and “The precise pre-ticked options may vary from service to service.” I think it is incredibly important not to jump to conclusions before any research has been done into this story. The fact is that nobody knows if ‘esoteric content’ will be filtered or not, and the signs at the moment suggest that it will not be filtered by default – if it is, it will happen service-provider-by-service provider. It is so important to get facts straight when we’re campaigning about incidents that may affect the Pagan community. And this is an overreaction based on incomplete information.”

Despite these uncertainties, it is important that our communities pay close attention to the implementation of this filter, and make sure access to Pagan and esoteric religious content is not blocked. I will be following up on this story as it develops, and will consult with UK Pagan leaders and clergy.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press are both reporting that a consent judgment has been handed down in the case of Hunter v. Salem Public Library Board of Trustees, in which Salem, Missouri resident Anaka Hunter was denied access to websites dealing with Wiccan and Native American customs due to the filtering software being used by the library. In addition, Hunter reported that she was “brushed off” and intimidated by library employees and board members. The settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber, says that the library agrees to remove the “occult” filter, among others, for library patrons. The ACLU, who represented Anaka Hunter, noted that “public libraries should be maximizing the spread of information, not blocking access to viewpoints or religious ideas not shared by the majority.”

Salem Public Library

Salem Public Library

“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures.”  – Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri

The Wild Hunt covered this issue extensively last year when the ACLU filed their lawsuit against the library, at the time I explored the long, strange history of Internet filtering services and how many of them contain filters that remove minority and alternative religious viewpoints in deference to their (then) largely Christian user base.

“The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the“constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site,, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.” 

Any library that receives federal funds is obligated to install Internet filtering software under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). However, that filter is only supposed to block only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors.” Sadly, either through ignorance of what various filter groupings contain, or misplaced (and illegal) paternalism, some libraries “overblock” the Internet stymieing open information and free inquiry. This was exactly the scenario warned of by critics of CIPA, and other advocated of an open and free Internet.

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“Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards.” – Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

This victory comes at a time when Pagan religions are emerging from their classification as “alternative,” or “occult” belief systems, as evidenced by the Book Industry Study Group’s decision to reclassify books on Wicca and modern Paganism as belonging in the Religion section rather than the Body, Mind, & Spirit (aka Occult) section (not to mention the fact that the University of Missouri lists the Wiccan Sabbats in it’s Guide to Religion). Still, even if Wicca and other faiths were unpopular, reviled, and relegated to non-religious categories, it would not change the fact that no belief system should be filtered by our government, under any circumstance. The adoption of Internet filters are supposed to protect children from pornography and harmful material, not keep adults from doing research. There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided.

My only regret at this decision is that it won’t create new precedent in which we can use to stop other public institutions from over-blocking Internet search results. We need to change the very filtering industry itself, which is, as a whole, mostly unresponsive, secretive about their databases, and grudging to change. That many of the filtering companies who provide their software to libraries here also provide that same software to oppressive governments overseas is an irony that should not be lost on us. A first step towards greater freedoms is the destruction of the “occult” filter, an outdated and discriminatory filter created by the fearful. The decision handed down today in Missouri is a small step towards that goal.

One year ago I reported on a lawsuit filed by the ACLU which accused the Salem (Missouri) Public Library with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.’” In that story I explained that the genesis of content filtering largely began with companies catering to culturally conservative/Christian clients who wanted to protect against what they saw as the excesses and moral decay of our society. As such, these filters often targeted “occult,” LGBT, and even politically liberal sites in addition to violent or adult-oriented destinations. As Nancy Willard, Executive Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, noted in a 2002 report, some of the largest web filtering businesses serve both government contracts and conservative religious interests.

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“Some of the filtering companies are providing filtering services to conservative religious ISPs that are representing to their users that the service filters in accord with conservative religious values. Some of the filtering companies appear to have partnership relationships with conservative religious organizations. Some filtering companies have been functioning as conservative religious ISPs and have recently established new divisions that are marketing services to schools. Most of the companies have filtering categories in which they are blocking web sites presenting information known to be of concern to people with conservative religious values — such as non-traditional religions and sexual orientation — in the same category as material that no responsible adult would consider appropriate for young people.”

As web filtering went from being a niche market to a multi-million dollar industry this culturally conservative DNA remained a part of their functionality, with companies purchasing/acquiring site lists that had a clear and identifiable bias instead of building new, secular-minded and politically neutral, lists from scratch. Now, this unfortunate legacy has struck again, this time not at Pagans (so far as I know) but at LGBT and liberal sites within the United States’ Defense Department.

Block notice for “Good as You” (Image: AMERICAblog)

Block notice for “Good as You” (Image: AMERICAblog)

“AMERICAblog has been raising awareness over the past week about a problematic Internet filtering problem at the Pentagon, and rightfully so. Apparently, a preponderance of LGBT news sites have been blocked by the DOD, including AMERICAblog, Towleroad, Good As You, The Bilerico Project, Pam’s House Blend, The Advocate, and the Human Rights Campaign’s blog.”

AMERICAblog also notes that anti-gay advocacy sites like  National Organization for Marriage aren’t blocked, nor are several popular conservative blogs. The Department of Defense sent out a statement that it does not blog LGBT sites, only “personal blogs” but that doesn’t explain how the Advocate and the Human Rights Campaign sites came to be blocked.

“…if the Pentagon doesn’t ban LGBT content, but rather “blogs,” then why did US sailors today discover that the gay newsmagazine, the Advocate – which is not a blog – is banned on military computers found on board the ship the USS John C Stennis (CVN-74), and has been for over a year? And for that matter, if we are to believe the Pentagon today that AMERICAblog, for example, is simply being blocked for being a blog, then why is the prominent Republican blog, Red State, not blocked on the same Air Force computers that block AMERICAblog?  One is gay and progressive, the other is straight and Republican.”

Even if the many of these instances of “overblocking” are innocent, there’s still a lot of blurry ground here, and the DoD’s statement doesn’t do much to clear it up. Is there even a criteria for what a “personal blog” is? Why would Pam’s House Blend be a personal blog, but not Ann Coulter’s site? The bizarre and seemingly biased classifications are only inciting further anger, instead of clearing things up. After further uproar and media attention, the DOD now says they are looking into the matter, and will work with the relevant “components” on fixing the issue.

“I can’t tell you what I’ve been told privately, but I can say that I’ve been speaking to someone knowledgable about this situation and I feel assured that they’re genuinely working on it.”

From what I know about the Internet filtering industry I can tell you that this won’t be the last incident of a government institution blocking access to content that shouldn’t be blocked in the public sphere. Not until government institutions make clear and strict guidelines for what can and cannot be included in a Internet filter on taxpayer-funded computers. There shouldn’t even be a LGBT filtering category, whether it’s enabled or not. Likewise, no filtering software sold to schools, libraries, or government bodies should include religion-oriented filters of any kind. As it stands, the status quo has been that marginalized groups have had to fight a highly secretive industry to get their categories and lists changed, often with mixed results. This is not good enough.

The Internet filtering business is fundamentally broken at its core, because it was initially designed to only serve one very select group of people, to protect them from the rest of the world. It won’t be until the DNA of filtering is re-written to serve a pluralistic, diverse, and ever-changing society that these problems will cease. My hope is that these embarrassing incidents for our government, and lawsuits against misuses of filtering software spark more attention to this problem, and ultimately, force a broader discussion on this topic.

Here are some updates on stories The Wild Hunt has reported on previously.

Teaching Paganism in British Schools: On Sunday I deconstructed the sensationalist Daily Mail’s assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. Still, why let facts and reason get in the way of a good rant? That’s seems to be the position of conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone, who uses the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

How long indeed! It seems that individuals like Odone are all for pluralism when it’s the other groups being tolerant and inclusive, but watch the knives come out when Christians are asked to make a bit of room to allow differing views. You know things have gone off the rails when a columnist makes The Daily Mail seem restrained by comparison (heck, even The Christian Post simply rewrites The Daily Mail’s article with no further editorializing).

The Problem With Passive Distribution: Last week I reported on the latest developments regarding the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina’s policy regarding religion in its schools. The new policy passed at that meeting was the culmination of months of activism that began when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. However, the larger question about the distribution of religious materials by non-student groups was tabled until next year, with talk of a religion fair of sorts where local churches could distribute literature. Now, advocacy group Americans United weighs in on that idea, warning the school board to tread carefully.

Can we really expect that future incidents of favoritism in distribution would not occur? What would happen if a Muslim group tried to drop off Korans, or Hindus left the Bhagavad Gita? Would local residents and the school board be open to letting impressionable minds read literature from minority faiths or anti-religion groups? There is absolutely no need to allow outside organizations to engage in “passive distribution” of materials at public schools, plus one would like to think that the school board has better things to do with its time than deciding whether or not a copy of the Satanic Bible is appropriate for students. […] Getting religious materials into student hands is simply not a void that public schools should fill.”

Local activists have noted that constant vigilance will be needed to make sure schools don’t seek out loopholes to their new rules, or try to create an unfair distribution policy once the glare of national attention is off of them. For more on the school board’s new policy, check out the two-part post from local Pagan activist Byron Ballard. She wisely notes that “we won’t be resting on our laurels but we will take a breather and figure out the next steps. Because it ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

A Brief Update on the “Occult” Library Filtering Case: Back in January I reported on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri against the Salem Public Library, accusing the institution of  unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.'” I’ve taken a keen interest in this case as I believe there shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. Since my initial report there hasn’t been much word as the case slowly worked its way towards trial, though Religion Clause does have a brief update on the city of Salem, Missouri being dismissed from the lawsuit.

“…a Missouri federal district court dismissed as to one defendant a free expression and and Establishment Clause challenge to the Internet filtering policies of the Salem, Missouri public library.  Plaintiff, who was attempting to conduct research on Native American spirituality and on the Wiccan Church claimed that the library’s policy of blocking religious websites categorized as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal skills’ while allowing access to the websites of more mainstream religions” was a content and viewpoint-based restriction on speech and has the effect favoring one religious viewpoint over another in violation of the Establishment Clause. The court dismissed the city as a defendant finding that the city retained no control or oversight over the library that was governed by a separate Library Board. The suit however will move forward against the Library Board and the library’s director.”

So not much has changed other than the city itself being removed from the case. I posted this update because I want to keep this story, which I think is very important, fresh in our minds. The results of this case could have far-reaching implications for adherents to Pagan and minority faiths looking for information in federally-funded institutions, and may even change the Internet filtering industry itself. Once the trial starts, or there’s more information to be shared, you’ll find it here. Oh, there is one other thing, the Library Board did file a response in March, which you can find here. They, naturally, deny all the allegations (seriously, “deny each and every allegation” is repeated at length).

Spotlight on Project Conversion (Spoiler: He Didn’t Actually Convert): Amanda Greene writes a profile for the Religion News Service (RNS) on Andrew Bowen’s Project Conversion, which I’ve mentioned a couple times previously here at The Wild Hunt. The goal, “convert” to 12 faiths in 12 months, including Wicca, and share what he’s learned. The RNS piece constructs the story as a personal journey through tragedy (his wife’s ectopic pregnancy that had to be aborted), the 12 religions were each there to help him “find faith in humanity.”

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

“…the 29-year-old Lumberton resident doesn’t call himself by any of the 12 faiths he practiced for a month at a time last year […] It was an obsession – his personal intervention. […] Bowen was one of the best students of Wicca Greenville resident Melissa Barnhurst has had. “He gave it a lot more than some students who’ve come to me wanting to become Wiccan,” she said. Meanwhile, his wife worked as a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. Things were hard financially, at times, because Bowen wasn’t working.”

Interestingly, this personal journey isn’t even referenced in the “about” page of Project Conversion, or his bio, which claims that “theology is a playground” to Bowen. Project Conversion caused some controversy in the Pagan community for what was seen as a too-blithe tourism through the Wiccan faith, nor did his account of an experience he had with some from-the-book “shamanism” he engaged with in 2003, do much to reassure folks. Bowen mentions in his Paganism wrap-up post the “firestorm of criticism” he received, and how he managed to rise above it all and find the true meaning of Wicca. In a sense, Bowen is just another “embedded” journalist, tasting our wares, and passing his judgment from a limited engagement. Very few such arrangements ever end up with the writer or journalist converting, but does lead them to have stories to tell at parties about that time they did a Pagan ritual.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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.

UK technology site TechWorld investigates the recent controversy over the Birmingham City Council blocking access to atheist and Pagan sites, while allowing normal access to “mainstream” religions like Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism. Bryan Betts interviews a spokesman from Bluecoat Software, who allegedly provides the council’s filtering service, and uncovers a general arbitrary cluelessness concerning the categorization of religions.

“The problem is that it lists organised religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism in one group, while relegating less mainstream – but recognised and perfectly legal – faiths such as Wicca and Paganism to an “Alternative Spirituality/Occult” group. Rather oddly, it lists atheism both in the latter group and under Politics. And a company spokesperson couldn’t explain what the difference is between “unconventional religious or quasireligious subjects” (listed under Religion) and ” alternative religions” (listed as Alternative Spirituality/Occult).”

You can read a run-down of Bluecoat’s filter categories, here. The dirty little secret of the web filtering business is that the categories are mostly cribbed from conservative Christian-backed programs and services. 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.

“Alternative Spirituality/Occult: Sites that promote and provide information on religions such as Wicca, Witchcraft or Satanism. Occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism are represented here. Includes sites that endorse or offer methods, means of instruction, or other resources to affect or influence real events through the use of spells, incantations, curses and magic powers. This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.”

The National Secular Society, who calls the current filtering scheme “slightly deranged”, is hoping that the negative publicity will be enough to change their filter policy, though they will take the matter to court if they have to. In the meantime, followers of “conventional”, “unconventional”, and “quasi-religious” faiths will have full access to the web, while the “alternative/occult” adherents will be treated as second-class citizens by a government agency. Something, no doubt, will have to give soon.

In England, the Birmingham City Council is coming under fire for a new web-filtering policy that blocks access to atheist and Pagan sites, but allows free access to mainstream Christian, Islam, and Hindu web sites.

“The authority’s Bluecoat Software computer system allows staff to look at websites relating to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religions but blocks sites to do with “witchcraft or Satanism” and “occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism”. Under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, it is unlawful to discriminate against workers because of their religion or belief, which includes atheism.”

Bluecoat Software manufactures K9 Web Protection, which, like other cyber-nanny programs, is designed to protect children from “unwanted” Internet content. Some of these programs have an “occult/cult” option which blocks sites that Christian parents might find troubling. It looks like Bluecoat and the Birmingham City Council may have decided that their employees were children as well, or simply didn’t care what got filtered so long as they can easily “monitor internet usage”.

“We are currently implementing new internet monitoring software to make the control of internet access easier to manage. The aim of this is to provide greater control for individual line managers to monitor internet usage, and for departments, such as trading standards and child protection, to gain access, if needed, to certain sites for business reasons.”

The National Secular Society has called the new filtering software “discriminatory”, and said that they would “consider legal action” if steps aren’t taken to correct the issue.

“National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said the city council’s rules also discriminated against people who practise witchcraft, which is also classed as a legitimate belief. He said the society would initially contact the council and ask for the policy to be changed, and otherwise pursue legal action. He said he believed he would have a “very strong case”. Mr Sanderson said: “It is discriminatory not only against atheists but they also are banning access to sites to do with witchcraft. “Witchcraft these days is called Wicca, which is an actual legitimate and recognised religion.”

A “very strong case” indeed considering the fact that this is a government-run facility, and beholding to stringent anti-discrimination policies. Either all access to religious sites need to be banned, or the infantilizing software must go.

Superintendent Gary Norris of the Sarasota County Public Schools in Florida recently participated in a “Religion in our Public Schools” forum hosted by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Norris didn’t seem ready to field questions regarding his districts use of Internet web filters on school computers, and what they were filtering out.

“Norris was responding to a question about the district’s use of Web filters, which block non-mainstream religions and occult sites. Norris said that the district’s instructional technology experts were searching for ways to give “certain groups of students” access to “certain information.” “Certain groups? What kind of censorship is that?” a man in the crowd of about 200 shouted. Norris was visibly taken aback. “I’m not going to participate in this forum if people are going to hurl insults,” he said.”

Can we just agree that when someone says “non-mainstream and occult” what they mean is Wicca and modern Paganism? Several of the popular “filters” being used by schools and other institutions block out sites with key-words like “witch”, “Wicca”, “Wiccan”, “Pagan”, “witchcraft” and “Shaman”. Which means that even sites like are blocked from being accessed by students.

They only way for these filter programs to be “fair” is for them to block all religious sites (sorry no researching that paper on Jesus for you) or to allow all religious sites in. Any middle ground creates a circumstance where institutions funded in part by our taxes favor one belief system over another.

The good news is that it seems that parents aren’t going to trust dodgy software or the institutions that buy them for much longer.

“Norris implored audience members shaking their heads at his responses, ‘not to shoot the messenger.'”