The ACLU reported in a press release:
What is behind this prejudice and discrimination?
"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."
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.Conclusion
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.