Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Censoring Alternative Religions

As I mentioned back when David Cameron first proposed filtering "esoteric web sites" in the UK, Internet filtering is pretty much always a disaster. Companies have been trying to create working algorithms since the early 1990's, with at least one company back then even going so far as to have employees manually categorize web pages. Even their filtering software failed to distinguish objectionable content from informative pages, and when faced with pattern recognition that a human being can't do correctly, a computer is going to fail every time.

Nonetheless, companies are still creating filtering software products and hoping that customers will be too ignorant to realize that what they're selling is essentially snake oil. Recently a Missouri library was sued over the "Netsweeper" software that it used to filter Internet content. In addition to legitimately objectionable material, it blocked references to Wicca, Native American spirituality, astrology, and other alternative religion sites.

The ACLU sued last year on behalf of Salem resident Anaka Hunter. Salem is a largely Christian community of 5,000 residents in the Missouri Ozarks. Hunter was researching death and death rituals in minority religions in an effort to get more in touch with her Native American roots through spirituality, the ACLU said.

The library’s filtering software blocked access to sites about Wicca, a pagan religion that worships nature and involves witchcraft. Hunter was also unable to access sites about Native American religions. The suit said the library’s Netsweeper software blocked sites such as the official webpage of the Wiccan church; the Wikipedia entry for Wicca; Astrology.com; and the Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which contains discussions on death and death rituals for several cultures and religions.

Sensibly, the judge ruled that the filtering software was out of line and could not be used as long as it censored alternative religious content. It should be clear that spirituality is not obscenity, whether or not it's part of a mainstream religious denomination, and libraries have a compelling public interest to provide information about it. But companies know that their filters don't distinguish sites well, so they generally default to blocking everything even marginally related to categories defined as restricted. Libraries need to be especially cautious when working with filters, to make sure that legitimate information sources are always available to their patrons.

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Nerd said...

Want to make a million dollars?

We should create a special internet, just for dumb people.

Scott Stenwick said...

I think the trouble is that big companies are getting there too quickly for us to take much advantage of it.