The Legacy of Christian Content Filters Strike Again

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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.