It’s a growing problem: Commercial web filters rigged for cyber-segregation, installed on public internet connections, and set to selectively block alternative spiritual beliefs. Here are six ways to counter this insidious slide into oppressive discrimination and censorship.
Following my previous report on how web filters are often rigged and used to selectively target and block alternative spirituality and belief websites, it’s time to look more closely at what can done about this growing threat to free speech and spiritual liberty in the digital age.
As a quick recap, commercial web filters are often designed to segregate and block sites like this one under an “alternative belief” category, which may be presented negatively and lumped with “adult content” alongside categories like pornography. Filters are used in places like public schools and libraries in ways that could amount to unlawful discrimination – blocking alternative beliefs, yet allowing access to websites about mainstream or traditional religions.
A whole range of websites get blocked as “alternative belief” – anything that is not a major world religion seems to be fair game. A quick survey revealed that The Conscious Reporter, along with a diverse mix of sites on esotericism, paganism, new-age spirituality, alchemy, astrology, Wicca, the paranormal and unexplained, and even David Icke’s conspiracy-theory website are categorised “alternative belief” by major commercial web filters, which are widely used around the world.
There is no need to feel helpless while this selective censorship and discrimination steamrolls over our freedom and rights. If you are affected, and you want to do something about it but you’re not sure what you can do, here are some ideas. There may be a range of different steps that can be taken depending on the circumstances.
So here are six possible ways to fight this digital persecution. Some may be more applicable than others, depending on the case.
1. Know Your Rights
If your access to alternative belief websites is blocked somewhere, I’d suggest researching your rights and the relevant laws in your jurisdiction first. Then you’ll know what your options are. You will need to know the specific laws are in your jurisdiction, because they can vary from one state or region to another within a country.
Here are some general areas you might want to look into:
Freedom of Speech and Belief
The US has one of the best legal protections of all – the constitutional protection of the First Amendment within the Bill of Rights, which provides for freedom of speech and religion.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won a Federal Court case which forced the Salem Public Library to stop blocking alternative beliefs on its internet services, because it was in breach of the First Amendment. The ACLU also convinced a public school district to stop blocking alternative beliefs on the same basis. Knowing legal precedents like these will enable you to make a strong argument if you find yourself in similar circumstances.
The advantages of the First Amendment is that it’s quite broad and may give content creators within the country grounds to complain if their websites are blocked, as well as those whose access to websites are blocked.
Not all countries have a Bill of Rights like the US, but many countries have signed international charters, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also enshrine the freedom of speech and belief. However, these charters are not always legally enforceable in a country, but often exist more as a set of guiding principles.
Many European countries are signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which provides for freedom of speech and belief. This convention can be enforced via the European Court of Human Rights, which is separate entity from the European Union (EU), and is concerned solely with cases of human rights breaches. An individual within a signatory country can appeal to this court if they feel their government has failed to protect their rights under the convention.
Some countries have passed their own specific human rights laws. The UK for example has the Human Rights Act, which gives “further effect” to the ECHR, and enables UK courts to compel the government to act in accordance with it. This limits the power of the state and protects individual rights in law. But watch out – the current UK government is looking to scrap both the Act and withdraw from the ECHR on dubious grounds.
You could find out what rights are protected in your location and how they can be legally enforced.
Most Western countries also have anti-discrimination laws. These generally forbid discrimination on the basis of religion or belief in public settings such as in employment, education, the provision of services and political participation.
Generally you need to show you were discriminated against by an organisation in the way it provided its service or conducted its business. For example: a student in an educational institute, a patron in a library, an employee in a workplace, a customer using public WiFi – who receive unequal or unfair treatment because of their beliefs – may have grounds to complain.
These laws would probably provide an avenue for complaint if your access to alternative belief websites were blocked in a public school or library. You might also have grounds to complain if alternative beliefs – but not mainstream or traditional beliefs – are blocked in your workplace or in a café’s WiFi zone, because as an employee or customer, you would be getting discriminatory treatment or poorer service compared to those with traditional beliefs.
It may not be so clear-cut where an internet service provider (ISP) offers a web filter on an opt-in basis. It could be argued no one is censored against their will if the filter is optional. However, if the filter is prejudiced against alternative spirituality, and blocks it as “adult content” while allowing access to websites about traditional beliefs when switched on, it could still be argued that the filter is discriminatory, especially if there is no way to un-select the “alternative belief” category when the filter is active. In such cases, those with alternative beliefs would be getting a poorer level of service in comparison to those with traditional beliefs and may be able to argue the company’s approach is discriminatory.
In cases like these, anti-discrimination laws might hold sway where the First Amendment does not, because these laws are more concerned with equal treatment or service by an organisation rather than freedom of speech. But these laws do have their limitations. If a public WiFi provider had settings so strict that websites about ALL beliefs were blocked, you could not claim discrimination because there is no difference in treatment between beliefs. Hopefully that is an unlikely scenario however. Although the UK blocks nearly half of religious sites in public WiFi hotspots, I’ve not heard of anyone filtering out all beliefs just yet.
2. Lodge a complaint, armed with the facts
Once you know what your rights are, you’ll be in stronger position to make a complaint to an organisation blocking alternative beliefs in a discriminatory way.
If you had your access blocked to alternative belief websites in a public library for example, first you might want to ask them nicely to stop the practice. If that fails, you could follow up with a formal letter or email. Be specific and cite the circumstances and dates where you were blocked, and what was blocked. Mention when you spoke to someone about it, how you asked them to rectify it, and what they said.
You could cite any relevant anti-discrimination laws and explain why you think the library is breaching them. If you’re in the US, you could mention legal precedents that have already been set around web filtering and the First Amendment.
Be factual and clear – don’t be emotional. Written correspondence can also be used as evidence of your attempts to address the matter directly with the relevant organisation should you seek to take the matter any further.
3. Take your complaint to a dedicated body
If you cannot convince the perpetrating organisation to cease their discriminatory censorship practices, then it might be appropriate to take your complaint somewhere else.
Dedicated Human Rights/Anti-Discrimination Bodies
Some countries, or states within countries, have dedicated bodies that deal with human rights and discrimination complaints. For example: the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
In a previous article I explained how the Government of the State of Queensland in Australia is using the Blue Coat filter to block alternative belief websites in a discriminatory way in public schools. There happens to be a Queensland body that deals with such matters.
The Anti-Discrimination Commission of Queensland (ADCQ) resolves complaints made under Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Act. The Act applies to educational institutions and makes it illegal for them to discriminate on the basis of religious/political belief or activity or to give students access to resources and facilities in a discriminatory way.
A Queensland student unable to access websites about their beliefs in the same manner as their peers with traditional beliefs, would conceivably have grounds to complain to the ADCQ.
These kinds of bodies tend to try to resolve complaints amicably through mediation first – so you don’t need lawyers or lots of money. You will be in better standing if you can show that you tried to resolve the situation directly with the relevant party first. The complaint may go to a higher body if mediation does not succeed – the ADCQ refers unresolved matters to a tribunal for determination.
Another option is to go to a non-government advocacy organisation, which may take up a complaint on your behalf. That’s what happened in the US with the Salem Public library. After the library user complained their access to alternative beliefs was blocked in the library, the complaint was not addressed. Then the individual went to the ACLU, who took the library to court and won.
Organisations like the ACLU have the resources and legal expertise for court battles, which they undertake in the public interest. A court case is not always required though. In another situation, the ACLU approached a school district to request they stop using their filters in a discriminatory way, and that was enough to end it.
If you are outside the US, you can check if there are similar civil rights advocacy organisations that could help.
4. Make a complaint to the filter company
In addition to dealing with venues and organisations that use filters in a discriminatory way, another option is to lodge a complaint directly with the company providing the web filter. You could write them a letter explaining why you feel their filter is designed for discrimination and the personal impact it has had on you. Filtering companies are likely to try to pass the buck and say they are not responsible for how third-party clients choose to implement the filters they provide, but you could encourage them to take more responsibility.
For example, you might explain that the way they describe and categorise alternative beliefs using loaded language actually inspires discrimination, because it encourages their clients using the filters to view the category as something negative which should be blocked. If they classify “alternative beliefs” as “adult content” you can explain how that encourages guilt by association, and completely mischaracterises many different beliefs.
You could also explain that it would not be acceptable to design a filter category to block websites on the basis of racial content, so why should it be acceptable to segregate content based on belief? Would they ever for example, create a race-specific category and describe it using racial stereotypes and loaded language, and then lump that category in with “adult content”? If that’s not ok, why is it ok to treat different beliefs with such discrimination?
You could ask them whether they, as a western company, feel ashamed about designing filters which treat alternative beliefs in a similar way to repressive censorship measures in China, which targets beliefs not approved by the communist government with web filters, negative propagandist rhetoric, and repression.
5. Use a proxy or VPN
If all else fails and you’re stuck with Orwellian web filters in your school, library, café, or even on your ISP, then you can always get around them using a proxy service.
If you’re using your own computer, either at home or connected to public WiFi on your laptop, then it should be easy enough to install and use a proxy service on your device. A good free option is the TOR browser, which creates a proxy web browser through which you can visit blocked sites. It can slow internet speeds down markedly however. There are also a range of paid Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) which you can subscribe to and install on your computer, which can divert all your web traffic (not just what’s in the browser) through a proxy server that can bypass the filter. These can provide faster speeds, but some are better than others in terms of effectiveness, security and privacy. (Read recommendations and reviews of various VPN providers here and here).
If you are using a public computer, such as in a library, then installing a VPN is probably not an option. However, if it allows USB connections, you can bring a copy of the TOR Browser on a thumb drive and run it straight off that – it doesn’t need to be installed on the system to run. Alternatively you can visit a free proxy website and browse the web through that.
However, be warned that many filters block access to proxy websites, or websites about proxy services and how to use them. In such cases you may need to download the TOR Browser on an un-filtered connection first before you can use it on a filtered network.
6. Spread the word
Finally, there is one more thing everyone can do, even if you are not directly affected by this.
Spread the word and let people know about this problem, why it’s a serious concern and what can be done about it. Inform people who you know care about the freedom to express and access alternative beliefs and ideas, and oppose censorship. The more people on the lookout to spot, expose and respond to this discriminatory blocking when it occurs, the better. And you can also sound the alarm if you notice alternative beliefs beings blocked somewhere near you.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There’s bound to be different options in different circumstances, and not all options will be suitable for everyone or every situation. I just wanted to get the ball rolling and share some ideas for anyone interested. If you can think of other ideas or steps that can be taken, please share them. I’d love to hear them.
The key point I really want to convey is this: we are not powerless – there is often something we can do.
Thank you for this article and bringing to light that we are not powerless against such discrimination. The ways of seeking justice are very clearly presented, when in the past they seemed like a confusion to me.
Like Lucia said, in Eastern Europe digital discrimination is not at that level yet (at least I have not seen it yet), but there is plenty of non-digital discrimination, on the basis of religion, wealth, race, sex, etc. And the same methods would be relevant here.
I am happy to share your post with others, and hopefully it will enable people to act.
Thanks Matthew, really useful list of actions there! I think it’s really important for people to take action if they encounter censorship rather than just ignoring it and hoping it will go away. If people take action companies and the people behind censorship will see we’re not just pushovers but are people willing to take action to stand up for our rights and they might think twice about future censorship.
Maybe another way to oppose censorship is to vote with our wallets. If we are using an ISP that is discriminating against alternative spirituality we could move to another provider who opposes censorship, and let the ISP know why we are moving. If enough people do that I think they will take notice!
If people are browsing the web on mobile devices there are also VPNs which can be installed for android and apple products.
That’s a good point David about voting with your wallet when you have a choice of ISPs. I think it would be good to take a stand first with your ISP if it is discriminating against alternative spirituality though, to see if the discrimination can be completely overturned, and so that a precedent can be set that prevents other ISPs doing the same. But if that doesn’t work then boycotting them and going for another one would be a good option.
Great article – thanks for these practical tips! These seem like small sacrifices to make, given what people stand to lose by not taking action and protecting our rights.
Thanks Matt for this information, it does make a lot of sense and is a good way forward.
Although I can see how this may seem like a lot of work (taking the time to research, file a complaint, etc.), there is a lot of benefit in following through with many of the action points suggested in the article (thanks for compiling those!). Better stop it in its tracks than wait until it’s too late…
Great list to get started, and I agree we definitely never are powerless. Always something can be done. And it’s very important – if we don’t keep track of this issue who knows where it will go.
Anti Discrimination laws in Australia generally don’t go far.
Thanks Matthew! That was a very helpful article, and as you said, we are not that helpless against this creeping censorship and discrimination taking over our rights. We can actually do something about it.
I really liked the idea of sending the letters to the companies who create these default-filters but it can be hard to make them accountable for it. As i have contacted some companies in the past and never got a response besides a general email thanking me for sending in feedback.
However, if there is a tally somewhere of numbers of letters sent, it can also be used to show their lack of care on the issue if they do not do anything, adding extra weight to the discrimination and censorship taking place and that can help change things.
Our digital rights are as valuable as our physical rights and it is important to preserve as much integrity everywhere.
There is hope 🙂
Thanks for putting together a pro-active list of things that can be done when running into this online censorship/discrimination. It can seem that we are helpless without the proper knowledge of what to do next, who to turn to etc.. But this helps a bunch, great work Matthew!
Nice! Thanks for these practical tips Matthew. Things don’t seem to be this bad in Eastern Europe yet, but I know its just a question of time when these discriminatory practices arrive here as well.