Commercial web filters are often rigged to selectively target alternative spirituality and beliefs. Sites like this one can be classified, segregated and blocked under an “alternative spirituality/belief” category, which is often described negatively. The widespread use of filters to block alternative beliefs on public networks, while allowing access to traditional/mainstream beliefs, raises issues of censorship, discrimination and prejudice.
There are various web filters available that can be customised to block just about anything. They are sold to households as “parental controls” and allow carers to block content they don’t want children to see. Organisations use them to prevent staff from visiting sites deemed inappropriate or a distraction from work. And they are installed on public internet networks, such as in libraries, cafes, schools, to make the internet “family friendly”.
Sometimes internet service providers (ISPs) have filters directly over their network which customers can opt-in to, while in some countries ISP filters are mandatory for Government censorship. But in Western countries, filters are usually an extra product or service an individual household, organisation, school or library chooses to put on their internet connection independently.
Typically filters use automated algorithms to classify sites into categories based on their content. But no filter is foolproof and they inevitably allow access to sites they are meant to block, while over-blocking some sites by mistake. They may compensate for this by allowing users to report wrongly-blocked sites and suggest how sites should be classified and blocked.
When you consider the range of content on the internet, it’s easy to understand the appeal of filters if you have children or underage users to cater for. Despite their flaws, their broad appeal is that they provide some control over the content on a family’s or organisation’s internet connection. Provided filters are not controlled by the government and used to suppress dissent, as happens in authoritarian countries, or forced onto the public under a false pretext and operated without transparency, as has happened in UK, then there is nothing wrong with individuals or organisations choosing to put filters over their own connections, is there?
In principle, no, but in practice, apart from over-blocking, filters can have serious issues of bias built into the way they choose to classify and describe certain content. This is apparent in their often prejudicial treatment of “alternative spirituality/belief.” I believe that the way filters separate alternative spirituality and beliefs from mainstream/traditional religions and beliefs is a form of cyber-segregation. I doubt such segregation would be tolerated if filters separated and blocked websites based on racial content or origin. And when filters are used to selectively block alternative spirituality in public places like libraries, it can even be illegal discrimination.
Filters and the cyber-segregation of spirituality
Most filters are customisable, which means that just because a content category can be blocked, it doesn’t mean you have to. And because filters cater to a wide audience, it’s not surprising that they can give you the option of blocking just about anything.
But not every category is treated equally. Filters can have prejudice built into the way they label and describe a category. This is the case when it comes to “alternative beliefs” or “alternative spirituality/belief”, which are common categories used by web filter providers, while “religion” is usually a separate category for dominant mainstream beliefs.
Classifying “alternative beliefs” separately from traditional or conventional religious beliefs gives the impression that conventional beliefs are “normal” and “socially acceptable” while alternative spiritual viewpoints and beliefs are not. But some filters go further and describe the alternative belief category using loaded language that makes such material sound sinister or risqué, or they lump it into a broader “adult content” category alongside things like drugs, pornography and gambling. This seems to encourage guilt by association, and makes it appear there is something illicit or wrong about having “alternative beliefs” as opposed to the “respectable” conventional beliefs of mainstream religions, which, in contrast, are usually described in neutral matter-of-fact language.
In other words, filters do not treat all beliefs equally; they often give mainstream dominant beliefs preferential treatment while portraying alternative beliefs negatively.
What this may mean in practice is that when parents, a school or a library etc. install and set up a filter, they are pre-positioned to view “alternative beliefs” in a negative light by the filter itself. This may feed into and encourage people’s own prejudices, or, if they simply don’t know any better, it might encourage them to block this classification on precaution (especially when alternative beliefs are labelled “adult”) while giving sanctioned traditional beliefs preferential treatment.
Common web filters that block alternative beliefs
Fortiguard groups the content it can block into 6 main categories. One of these is “Adult/Mature Content” which includes the subcategory “Alternative Belief” alongside pornography, gambling, weapons and marijuana and other such topics. Traditional beliefs are conspicuously absent from “Adult/Mature Content”, instead being classed under the subcategory “Global Religion” in the more benign-sounding “General Interest – Personal” umbrella category. The “Alternative Belief” classification is described as applying to:
“Websites that provide information about or promote religions not specified in Traditional Religions or other unconventional, cultic, or folkloric beliefs and practices. Sites that promote or offer methods, means of instruction, or other resources to affect or influence real events through the use of spells, curses, magic powers, satanic or supernatural beings.”
Conventional religions/beliefs get a far more prosaic description:
“Sites that provide information about or promote Buddhism, Bahai, Christianity, Christian Science, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Shinto, and Sikhism, as well as atheism.”
Blue Coat is another major web filter that blocks “alternative spirituality/belief”. According to the datasheet (pdf) on its website this category comprises:
“Sites that promote and provide information on alternative spiritual and non-religious beliefs such as atheism, agnosticism, witchcraft, and Satanism. Occult practices, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism are represented here. This 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. The category includes sites that discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.”
Contrast the above with the neutral language they use to describe conventional religion:
“Sites that promote and provide information on traditional, organized religious belief, practice and observance and directly-related subjects such as religious catechism or dogma and places of religious worship or observance (e.g., churches, synagogues, temples, etc.). This category does not include sites about non-traditional spiritual and non-religious belief systems (Alternative Spirituality/Belief).”
Another major web filtering company is the New Zealand-based company Watchdog (formerly known as Familynet) which operates as Watchdog International worldwide with the slogan “get the worst out of the internet”. The Watchdog categories include:
Sites for non-mainstream periodicals, information on self-awareness, spirituality, healing arts, holistic living, junk culture, fringe media, art perspectives, etc.
Sites promoting cult or gothic subject matter, use of mind control, paranoia, fear, and any other type of psychological control or manipulation.”
Rather than servicing households, Watchdog International provides filtering services to ISPs, businesses, governments, mobile operators, education institutions and non-government organisations, who in turn filter the networks they provide. If you take the description text for their “Cults/gothic” category and drop it into Google, you will find that a vast array of organisations are using their filtering criteria, including schools and ISPs in the USA.
What all the above filters have in common is their use of loaded language to describe “alternative spirituality”. While being broad enough to capture just about any belief that doesn’t fit into an establishment religion, notice how these descriptions are loaded with words that have negative connotations, like “cultic” “satanic” “satanism” “occult” “voodoo rituals” “mind control” “paranoia” “fear” and so forth.
These categories all seem to conflate alternative spirituality with dark and sinister things. When you compare the distorted tone of these descriptions to the language used to describe conventional religious beliefs, the difference is striking.
Isn’t this a form a prejudice? If so, what is the reason? Are filter providers consciously encouraging bigotry towards alternative spirituality and beliefs, or are such descriptions just a passive reflection of stereotypical fears and prejudices toward alternative spirituality that already exist in society, which the filter providers are seeking to cater to?
What “alternative beliefs” are blocked?
To their credit, both Fortiguard and Blue Coat provide a portal where you can enter any URL and check how they classify a website, which does provide a degree of transparency. You can check how Fortiguard classifies a website by entering its URL in the search box on the right side of this page, while Blue Coat provides a similar function here.
And guess what? Both Fortiguard and Blue Coat have this site, consciousreporter.com in their sights. Fortiguard has this site down under “Alternative Belief”, and Blue Coat has it under “Alternative Spirituality/Belief”. Anyone using a connection where these filters are set to block these categories will not be able to read this article.
Here are some examples of websites blocked by one or both of these filters under these categories:
- alchemywebsite.com (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- astrology.about.com (Blue Coat)
- ancientsacredknowledge.com (Blue Coat)
- consciousreporter.com (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- davidicke.com (Blue Coat)
- deepspirits.com (Blue Coat)
- esotericonline.net (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- esotericscience.org (Blue Coat)
- falundafa.org (Blue Coat)
- faluninfo.net (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- fofg.org [friends of falun gong] (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- newagejournal.com (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- new-age-spirituality.com (Blue Coat)
- paganfederation.org (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- pagannews.com (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- paganpride.org(Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- paganwiccan.about.com (Fortiguard)
- paranormalnews.com (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- theepochtimes.com (Bluecoat)
- thewhitegoddess.co.uk (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- wicca.com (Fortiguard)
- witchesandpagans.com (Blue Coat, Fortiguard)
- ufocasebook.com (Blue Coat)
I haven’t done an exhaustive search of sites, but after checking some URLs it doesn’t take long to see that a diverse mix of views are slotted into these “alternative belief” categories. Pagan and Wiccan sites fare particularly badly, new age sites are also in the mix, and it seems you don’t have to go to China to have Falun Gong websites blocked either.
Of course, if people choose to install filters over their own private connection to block what they personally don’t want to see, then that’s their business. But serious issues arise when these filters are installed over entire networks by ISPs, schools, libraries or public WiFi providers, and block out alternative beliefs in public places in a discriminatory way.
Web filters as tools of discrimination
In the UK we have seen alternative spirituality and beliefs blocked on mobile internet, and it’s been found that public WiFi blocks almost half of religious sites. Indeed, the overzealous government-backed filtering regime in the UK appears to be out of control, and was recently found to block almost one fifth of the top 100,000 sites on the web.
But when it comes to the cyber-segregation of spirituality using filters, service providers are not the only culprits.
When a public school or library set up a filter to selectively block alternative beliefs, while permitting access to traditional beliefs, they can be liable for discrimination. Although anti-discrimination laws vary from one place to another, public institutions are generally not supposed to dictate which beliefs are acceptable or not, or treat certain beliefs more favourably than others, or interfere with an individual’s right to access material related to their own personal beliefs or spiritual interests.
Such discrimination may also violate human rights. For example, article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gives everyone the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in “public or private” and forbids any “coercion” which would impair this freedom.
In the USA, discriminatory filtering of alternative beliefs in public libraries has been found to be in direct breach of the First Amendment.
Salem witch hunt 2.0
A legal precedent has been set on this front in the US.
The Salem Public Library in Missouri was caught carrying out a virtual witch-hunt on its internet services by blocking so-called “occult” beliefs. The library was using the Netsweeper filter provided through MOREnet. Netsweeper – according to a whitepaper it released in 2010 – classified the subcategory “Occult” in the “Adult” category alongside things like “Criminal Skills”, “Extreme”, “Gambling”, “Hate Speech”, “Pornography”, “Profanity”, “Substance Abuse” and “Weapons”, which seems to encourage guilt by association.
Netsweeper defined occult material as:
“… sites involving the study of secret or hidden knowledge and includes any URLs about cults, supernatural forces and events, occult lore, vampires, astrology, witchcraft, mysterious symbols, and other phenomena beyond ordinary understanding. It also includes information and instructions on astrology, spells, curses, magic powers, satanic or supernatural beings.”
Notice the loaded language.
The Salem library using this filter ran into trouble when a resident researching websites about Native American religions and the Wiccan faith found that these minority faiths were categorised and blocked as “occult” or “criminal”. After she complained to the library, full access was still withheld.
So she went to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who took the library to court and won. The Judge ruled in March 2013 that blocking material solely on viewpoint was unconstitutional.
Discrimination toward alternative spirituality in Public Schools
Discrimination against alternative spiritual beliefs can also be an issue in public schools. In 2005 students at Pine View public school in Florida made complaints about how their school filter blocked non-mainstream religions and so-called “cults” yet allowed access to major religions.
In Australia, the state of Queensland currently filters the internet in public schools, using the Blue Coat filter mentioned previously. The Queensland government displays the filter settings they use online, which reveals they set the filter to block “Alternative Spirituality/Belief” while allowing access to “Religion” for students.
In the USA, the ACLU has had success stopping public schools from using filters in a discriminatory way. The Clark County School District agreed to stop filtering “Alternative Spirituality/Belief” after the ACLU complained.
The ACLU reported in a press release:
“Although the First Amendment does not require the school district to provide students with Internet access, once a school district does so, it may not selectively censor access to websites based on particular viewpoints,” said Staci Pratt, Legal Director for the ACLU of Nevada.
…The “Alternative Spirituality/Belief” filter prevented student access to educational and age-appropriate websites covering a “wide range of non-traditional and/or non-religious spiritual, existential, experimental, and philosophical belief systems.” Notably, even though the School District blocked “Alternative Spirituality/Belief” related web sites, it continued to allow access to “Religion,” or websites representing mainstream and traditional religious views, as well as information on “churches, synagogues, or other houses of worship.”
What is behind this prejudice and discrimination?
Is this apparent discrimination toward alternative spirituality just an unconscious manifestation of social prejudice on the part of those creating or using these filters? Or might there be a deliberate strategy to marginalise alternative beliefs?
According to research carried out last decade, the selective targeting of alternative beliefs by filters may be deliberate in some cases. In 2002, Nancy Willard published the report ‘Filtering Software: The Religious Connection’ which looked at eight filtering providers in the US and found they all had links to conservative religious organisations. Many of the providers were also marketing their products to public schools.
Willard also looked at the categories used to target alternative beliefs and found schools were using the filters to block non-traditional religious sites, which she deemed unacceptable:
“It should be noted that the terms “occult,” “cult,” “new age,” “witchcraft,” and the like are terms that are frequently applied to any non-traditional religions. Virtually all “new age” religious topics are grounded in spiritual traditions and religious thought of various groups, including Native American and Asian religions. Therefore, blocking access to such material may raise issues related to race, as well as religion. To classify non-traditional religious sites in the same category as Satanism is unacceptable. If students are allowed to access Christian sites, which most people would argue they should be allowed to access, it is unacceptable for schools to block access to non-traditional religious sites.”
More than a decade later, it seems little has changed when it comes to using loaded language and selective categories to discriminately target alternative beliefs with web filters.
When alternative beliefs are blocked on public internet networks, such as in public schools and libraries, who is responsible? Is it the organisation using the filter, or the private companies providing filters designed to enable religious-based discrimination?
Usually a public-funded institution like a school or library is under a legal obligation to provide its services in a non-discriminatory way, without favouring particular beliefs over others. They have a responsibility to operate any filters they use without violating the law or people’s rights.
It is not clear just how widespread the use of discriminatory filters has become on public internet networks, but it’s clearly not uncommon. If such places violate someone’s rights by censoring alternative spirituality, there are often clear avenues to complain, and legal precedents that have been set (such as ACLU vs the Salem Public Library). Some jurisdictions may also have specific anti-discrimination bodies you can go to for help.
When it comes to the companies providing these filters, I think they would probably argue that their filters are customisable, and they are not responsible for the settings third parties use.
But the companies providing these filters also bear some responsibility in my view. When you consider the negative way in which many filters segregate alternative spirituality and beliefs, and describe this category with language better suited to the Inquisition, I think it is reasonable to conclude that filters play a role in actually encouraging discrimination. This is reinforced further when alternative spirituality is lumped in with “adult” content. I doubt this approach would get very far if content was segregated in the same manner based on race.
Whether this inbuilt cyber-segregation of spirituality is part of a deliberate agenda by filter providers, or merely unconscious prejudice born from social stereotypes is difficult to say. But whatever the case, current filter setups both enable discrimination as well as actively encourage it when it comes to alternative spirituality. I think filter providers should lift their game and stop employing double standards in their treatment of alternative spirituality in comparison to mainstream and traditional religions.
As filters become more and more prevalent on public networks, perhaps the greatest danger of all is indifference. Filters provide silent suppression: people may not know what they are missing out on, and those with no interest in alternative spirituality may not even realise censorship is happening. But the good news is that filter settings can easily be changed. And laws and rights often do exist to deal with this discrimination – but only if those affected by it speak up.
If enough of us value alternative spirituality and the principles of freedom and fairness, then the silent suppression of alternative spirituality via web filters can be prevented.