Saturday, 2 August 2008

Birmingham's atheists caught in the Net?

Earlier this week, a story on the BBC news website suggested that Birmingham City Council had a policy of banning its employees from accessing Atheist websites, while allowing them to view information about mainstream religions. It added that "the rules also ban sites that promote witchcraft, the paranormal, sexual deviancy and criminal activity."

The story appears to have originated with the National Secular Society, whose president Terry Sanderson was quoted as threatening the council with legal action if they didn't immediately rescind the ban. A policy singling out atheism would, on the face of it, fall foul of the Employment Equality Regulations of 2003, under which atheism enjoys the same protection as any other belief or lack thereof. Sanderson said: ""We feel very strongly that people who don't believe should not be denied the access that people who do believe have got." He added that some opinion polls said that up to 25% of the UK population now considered themselves atheist, and pointed out that pagans would have equal grounds to feel affronted and discriminated against. After all, he said, Wicca was now "an actual legitimate and recognised religion."

Like many defenders of secularism, the NSS has been increasingly alarmed by the apparent determination of public authorities in Britain to privilege religion above non-faith groupings, itself a by-product of multiculturalism. On closer reading, however, the source of the trouble in the Birmingham case would seem not to be the council's views on religion or atheism but rather the filtering software it has introduced. According to the BBC account, Birmingham was now using the "Bluecoat WebFilter computer system" which permitted access to religious sites while blocking both "atheistic views" and "alternative" religions. A "council source" said:


We are currently implementing new internet monitoring software to make the control of internet access easier to manage. The aim of this is to provide greater control for individual line managers to monitor internet usage, and for departments, such as trading standards and child protection, to gain access, if needed, to certain sites for business reasons.


As the story spread and the Birmingham authorities were inundated with complaints from angry unbelievers, they issued a new statement which declared that they had "no plans" to block access to any site on the grounds of "religious, secularist or atheist/agnostic content"; nor had the new software actually been introduced:

The only formal policy we have in this area is the City Council's Internet Use Policy, the latest version of which was approved by Cabinet in March 2007. It lays down the principles of acceptable use of the City Council's Internet facilities, including the terms of the concession offered to staff who have access for work purposes to make limited and reasonable use of the facilities for personal use.

We are currently implementing new software to control access to the Internet and various City Council staff have been discussing the detailed implementation of the controls, but this is purely to implement the policy, not to change it. There has been speculation in the press about our policy which appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of the status and content of a discussion document.


So is there a problem, and if so, what? If you go to the Blue Coat website you'll find a helpful explanation of their web-filtering system, which, they claim, "is the most relevant and efficient database. The Blue Coat WebFilter database contains fifteen million website ratings representing billions of web pages, published in more than 50 languages, and organized into 69 useful categories." Organisations using the software can choose which categories (if any) to block. Subject areas that might be considered objectionable include abortion, adult content, alcohol, alternative sexuality, illegal drugs, jokes, social networking, sports, and "suspicious". Taken as a whole, the list gives off more than a faint whiff of small-town American puritanism. Anyway, the trouble would seem to concern category 22:

Sites that promote and provide information on religions such as Witchcraft or Satanism. Occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism are represented here. 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. This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.


It is, on the face of it, a bit strange to find atheism listed alongside witchcraft and voodoo. Any self-respecting rationalist will rightly be infuriated, regardless of anything Birmingham City Council might introduce as part of their internet monitoring policy. If nothing else, it hints at the strange way in which atheism is viewed in the USA, as somehow not quite patriotic or normal - a legacy, I think, of the Cold War as much as of American religiosity. Just as no candidate for president would ever admit to being anything other than a convinced Christian (even if he is secretly agnostic), so it may well have seemed obvious to the software's designers to group "atheistic views" with other examples of wacko beliefs.

Yesterday, a more detailed statement appeared on the NSS website explaining their position. They had seen documentation (presumably the "discussion document" referred to above) which proposes complete blocking for category 22, while allowing staff unrestricted access to anything covered by the "religion" category, which explicitly "does not include sites containing alternative religions such as Wicca or witchcraft (Alternative Spirituality/Occult) or atheist beliefs (Political/Activist Groups)".

[Attentive readers may notice a contradiction between the wording of category 22, in which "atheistic views" are sandwiched between "occult practices" and "voodoo rituals" and that of that of category 54 ("religion") which implies that atheism belongs in the box marked "political/activist groups". It's not clear whether or not the Birmingham policy would block this category too, but it would seem to be almost as misleading to characterise atheism as a form of political activism as it would to call it a form of alternative spirituality.]

The NSS statement went on to outline the legal steps it was taking, adding that "we suspect that the Council have not set out to contravene or reverse their own equal employment policies and that this problem results from someone in the Council acting in a thoughtless way." They added a wish that "common sense prevails".

Well, here's my contribution towards "common sense". The BlueCoat website, it turns out, offers a very helpful review function, where you can discover the categorisation of any URL. I entered the details of some well-known atheist and rationalist sites:

National Secular Society (http://www.secularism.org.uk/) came under both "religion" and "society/ daily living"

British Humanist Association (http://www.humanism.org.uk): Cultural/ charitable organizations

Freethinker (www.freethinker.co.uk) is categorised as "religion".

Pharyngula (scienceblogs.com/pharyngula): Reference

Richard Dawkins foundation (www.richarddawkins.net): Society/ Daily living

New Humanist (blog.newhumanist.org.uk): news/ media

Friendly Atheist (Hemant Mehta)(http://friendlyatheist.com/): blogs/ personal pages

Atheists Online (http://www.atheists-online.com/index.asp): religion

Oh, and by the way, Heresy Corner comes under "blogs/personal pages".

So it would seem that Terry Sanderson doesn't have that much to worry about. Despite the wording of Category 22, sites with atheist views are not categorised alongside either occultism or (so far as I can tell) "political activism", and wouldn't be blocked. What emerges most clearly is that the boffins at Blue Coat aren't quite sure where to put the atheism sites, but the majority are listed under "religion". Whether this revelation will please or infuriate Sanderson I'm not sure. On the other hand, pagans may well have grounds for taking action further. The website of the Pagan Federation (http://www.paganfed.org/) would indeed be blocked by Birmingham's Blue Coat setup.

Perhaps they should organise a mass curse.

11 comments:

therealalekid said...

I have one of those blocker things and theirs tons of anomalies. I can't access the Tesco Wine club (and other supermarkets), facebook and a number of retail shops.

Firewatcher said...

So categorising Atheists Online under "religion" is OK? A bit like calling black white?

Paul Sims said...

Thanks for the tip off on your blog post - all it took was for someone to do a bit of research. Good work.

We should do a link swap by the way.

Best

Paul, New Humanist

cdavis said...

Grratitude of Extraordinary Magnitude for your excellent work on this. Let's hope that a) Brimingham Council really do the right thing, and b) other similar organisations take note.

Oh, and: @firewatcher: it's a bit more like calling black a colour; and even more like calling bald a hairstyle. But I suppose they don't have a category for 'Reality'.

CD

The Heresiarch said...

"Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hairstyle". Great line! I'll remember it the next time someone accuses RD of being a fundamentalist.

cdavis said...

After a brief pause to bask in the undeserved approval I have to point out that the line is not mine. Like all my material, it's a theft.

Frankly, the lines been around almost as long as the one about 'fighting for peace'.

I have no original ideas. It's called 'artificial intelligence'. I can fool most of the people most of the time.

CD

Edwin said...

Great blog and many thanks for the links Heresiarch. I noted on Cif that in Skye last week while stuck for time at Portree library I chose to come here rather than Cif - this blog shows why.

And thanks cd for making me laugh - am sure you're a damn sight more of an original than I am!

valdemar said...

Telling fact - when I first came across this story I assumed it was about Birmingham, Alabama. As indeed it should be.

The Heresiarch said...

Many people jumped to conclusions about this - most of all the NSS, I'm sorry to say. The reality was easy to establish - all it took was a trip to the Blue Coat website. The point, I suppose, is that there's a familiar narrative - I'm not saying it's untrue - along the lines of "the government/ local authorities are giving special privilege to religion", and something like this comes along and easily gets slotted in.

cdavis said...

Good thing you're not saying it's untrue, lest you be caught bearing your false witness in a public place.

The sad fact appears to be - post the BA crucifix moron, the registry office homophobe and the bracelet twat - that when it gets to court, religion is allowed to trump every-bloody-thing. Like the fundamental rules of civilised society, for example.

My own hope is that some brave bugger will come forward and demand his right to walk around at work with a plate of spaghetti on his head at all times, in honour of the FSM. Let's see the courts find a reason to deny him that right that is consistent with the other rulings.

If not, I say we begin bombing in five minutes.

CD

Tom Rees said...

So are there any atheist sites that it does block? Or is it just a bad descriptor? And anyway, from the perspective of Birmingham city council, they read the descriptor and ticked the box. Just because the product doesn't do what it says on the tin, doesn't mean their intentions were harmless...

And we should complain about them blocking pagan sites too - the NSS is not an atheist outfit, but a secularist one. The Council has no business decreeing what religious or spiritual beliefs are acceptable.