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General News    H4'ed 7/24/14

Web filters and Alternative Spirituality: The Selective Censorship of 'Alternative Beliefs'

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Commercial web filters are often rigged to selectively target alternative spirituality and beliefs. Sites 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 risque, 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

There are many web filters on the market: two major ones are Fortiguard and Blue Coat. Both of these companies are major providers which service not only households but schools and enterprises.

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:

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Matthew is a freelance writer with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, an open mind and a keen interest in defending personal freedom and uncovering the truth. He writes at The Conscious Reporter about issues that affect and suppress human (more...)

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