Pharyngula

The Birmingham city council has put up blocking software to lock out atheist websites, which is OK — they’ve got to crack that whip and keep their employees focused on the work at hand, of course. Unfortunately, they apparently aren’t doing this to improve productivity, but simply to shut down a point of view some bureaucrat doesn’t like.

The authority’s Bluecoat Software computer system allows staff to look at websites relating to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religions but blocks sites to do with “witchcraft or Satanism” and “occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism”.

I’m always peeved at this inconsistent categorization. If you’re going to group undesirable topics under the heading of “Forms of mysticism”, then atheism does not belong there, but Christianity and Islam do, right along with witchcraft, the occult, voodoo, and New Age nonsense. I suppose we could even stretch that category to cover pornography, since it largely seems to consist of imaginary bodies airbrushed and photoshopped into an impossibly ideal form.

Comments

  1. #1 Baba
    July 29, 2008

    Sounds like a version of the Trollcage! AKA the Cyber Gulag!

  2. #2 Cronan
    July 29, 2008

    Seems the National Secular Society is considering legal action.

    http://www.secularism.org.uk/

    Only in Birmingham!

  3. #3 Richard Harris
    July 29, 2008

    It’s outrageous! The bozo responsible for this ban should’ve been consistent & prevented access to the religious sites, as you’ve rightly pointed out.

    But doesn’t this action by the City contravene US law against promotion of religion? Oh shit, I thought it’d be Birmingham, Alabama. No, it’s Birmingham, UK!

    I bet the feckin’ Submissionists (followers of the prophet Muhammad, piss be upon him) are behind this.

  4. #4 Greg Esres
    July 29, 2008

    I thought you were talking about Birmingham, Alabama.

  5. #5 Mcstabbity
    July 29, 2008

    “I suppose we could even stretch that category to cover pornography, since it largely seems to consist of imaginary bodies airbrushed and photoshopped into an impossibly ideal form.”

    In magazine form, perhaps. But that argument becomes more difficult to make regarding internet pr0n. A large chunk of it appears to be amateurish, non-photoshopped, and non-surgically enhanced. But no one has to take my word for it, of course. Feel free to research the matter (especially if you happen to have a wife/girlfriend like mine who likes that sort of thing).

  6. #6 Ric
    July 29, 2008

    Can we leave the pornography out of this please? Why pick on pornography because some religious idiots want to censor atheists?

  7. #7 Adam
    July 29, 2008

    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.

    I think I see their point. Obviously the Child Protection Departments need access to the Catholic web sites.

  8. #8 El Herring
    July 29, 2008

    This is my home town, so I’m a bit annoyed at this. The nonsense is getting too close to home for my liking. I’m writing to the city council to tell them exactly what this particular local atheist thinks about their ridiculous double standards.

  9. #9 ssjessiechan
    July 29, 2008

    “I think I see their point. Obviously the Child Protection Departments need access to the Catholic web sites.” – #17

    We should look on the bright side. Obviously they feel threatened by our ideas, but they’ve tacitly admitted we’re no danger to children.

  10. #10 John Vreeland
    July 29, 2008

    It’s BIRming’am, West Midlands, not BIRming HAM, Alabama.

  11. #11 Bjorn Watland
    July 29, 2008

    I block people at my work from Pharyngula, but also from MySpace, FaceBook, Google, MSN, Yahoo, Ask.com, and any other site which isn’t needed for people to do their jobs. I’m a jerk like that.

  12. #12 Cronan
    July 29, 2008

    The article mentions that this gormless bunch of Brummies use BlueCoat, a web filtering application. At my last job they also used the same software. Effectively, they present you with a bunch of categories, you choose which ones you don’t want to see. When this was implemented a large number of sites became blocked; simply because of poor categorisation by the BlueCoat folks.

    I’m guessing that the Brummies selected a category that looked reasonable (i.e. “paranormal”) without going into the details of what that meant.

  13. #13 Quidam
    July 29, 2008

    Bluecoat software? That’s a California company. My expereince with web blocking software is that when you block a category then all sorts of loosely related sites get blocked too.

    I don’t think we should blame Birmingham too much – yet. The problem is more likely with the company that defined the categories and put Wicca and atheist sites in the same category but separate from religious sites.

    My money is on Birmingham simply adding the category ‘religious sites’ to the block list. Any takers?

  14. #14 Dutch Delight
    July 29, 2008

    It certainly takes a special kind of idiot to list not believing in other peoples gods in the same league as “occult practices” and “voodoo rituals”.

    This is the kind of stuff that needs more attention, people shouldn’t get away with this stuff as if it’s “just a mistake”. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be “just a mistake” if they put Islam or Christianity in the blocked group.

  15. #15 Sam B
    July 29, 2008

    Soo… Net Neutrality anyone?

  16. #16 Amplexus
    July 29, 2008

    Websites with a-theistic views:

    So I imagine a website about deep sea fishing that doesn’t mention Poseidon is an a-theistic explanation of ocean ecosystems?

    A deep-sea fish website might also dispel crytpo zoology sightings of sea serpents.

  17. #17 amphiox
    July 29, 2008

    You have been mislead by the pedants responsible for the Oxford dictionary, PZ.

    “Mysticism” actually means “whatsoever views that are not similar to my own.”

  18. #18 niennie
    July 29, 2008

    Bjorn: “I block people at my work from…google…”!
    Google is the epitome of productivity, unless your employees don’t need accessiblity of information.

    And agreed on the point about poor categorization ( If you’re going to group undesirable topics under the heading of “Forms of mysticism”, then atheism does not belong there, but Christianity and Islam do, right along with witchcraft, the occult, voodoo, and New Age nonsense. )… what were they thinking?

  19. #19 Armchair Dissident
    July 29, 2008

    Interestingly, they also run filtering for their library computers, with some bizarre categories being blocked. I wonder if atheism is banned in Birmingham’s libraries now too?

    My money is on Birmingham simply adding the category ‘religious sites’ to the block list. Any takers?

    Nope. They allow people to view information on a selected list of religious views, just not “satanism, witchcraft or atheistic views”. So religion per se is most definitely allowed, but someone’s lumped “atheist” with “mysticism”

  20. #20 Armchair Dissident
    July 29, 2008

    Grrr. Didn’t end the quote. Everything from “Nope,” onward above was mine…

  21. #21 SC
    July 29, 2008

    National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said the city council’s rules also discriminated against people who practise witchcraft, which is also classed as a legitimate belief.

    Is Vodou recognized by any European states as a religion?

  22. #22 Sarcastro
    July 29, 2008

    If you’re going to group undesirable topics under the heading of “Forms of mysticism”, then atheism does not belong there, but Christianity and Islam do, right along with witchcraft, the occult, voodoo, and New Age nonsense.

    Not all religion is mystical. I mean, yea Sufis are mystics but the great mass of Islam is not. Gnosticism was mystical in nature but most modern forms of Christianity are not. Buddhism… yea, that one’s pretty much mystical. Hell, one could make a good argument that, for instance, Timothy Leary’s Circuit Model of consciousness is an atheistic – or, at most, materialistic pantheist – mysticism.

  23. #23 Forrest Prince
    July 29, 2008

    mysticism: (from my Webster’s dictionary)

    noun. 1) the doctrine… that it is possible to achieve communion with God through contemplation and love without the medium of human reason.

    2) any doctrine that asserts the possibility of attaining knowledge of spiritual truths through intuition acquired by fixed meditation.

    3) vague, obscure, or confused thinking or belief

    Yup, that’s atheism in a nutshell. Riiiiiiiiight.

  24. #24 SEF
    July 29, 2008

    Any bets over into which category astrology has gone? It ought to be in the paranormal woo along with the religious garbage, while atheism ought to go into any rationalist category which might exist (along with science).

  25. #25 leki
    July 29, 2008

    The brummies aren’t allowed to visit atheist sites, hey?

    Birmingham is always in the news for something or another. A few years ago there were riots at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre over a play that depicted a rape in a sikh temple; there have been issues with honour killings; gun crimes have doubled (highest concentration of guns in the UK is Birmingham).

    Remember the raid of January 2007? Birmingham police rounded-up a bunch of folks who were planning to kidnap a British soldier (muslim group, muslim soldier). That was big, big news.

    I’ve visited Birmingham several times and there is this huge chasm between ethnicities. People are screaming on all sides about what language to teach in schools, how many mosques are allowed per block, whether or not the ‘english’ way of life is disappearing. Hot spot of discontent and animosity, but an awesome festival and music scene.

  26. #26 Armchair Dissident
    July 29, 2008

    Bingo!

    User manual for the software (non-corporate version, I’m presuming).
    http://www1.k9webprotection.com/support/files/K9Manual.pdf

    The image on page 22 shows the default categories blocked by their software; it includes such joys as:

    “Abortion”
    “Intimate apparel/Swimwear”
    “Sex education”
    “Sexuality alternative lifestyles”

    and:

    “Alternative spirituality/Occult”

    Also, in their FAQ, they state:

    Q: “Is Blue Coat affiliated with any political or religious organization?”

    A: “No. The people at Blue Coat who work on the K9 project are parents. Because of our work on the software we make for corporations, we know what harmful stuff is out there on the Internet. We don’t want your kids – or our kids – running into it.”

    http://www1.k9webprotection.com/support/faq.php

    So yup, looks like a deliberate action on the part of Blue Coat. Be interesting to see how Birmingham react to this one.

  27. #27 Boris
    July 29, 2008

    Let me get this straight, they can surf web-sites with graphic torture images and descriptions including being hung from a cross, descriptions of incest and other immoral tales we find in the bible, they can even surf web-sites dedicated to christian snuff films (the passion) but no Robert Ingersoll?

  28. #28 El Herring
    July 29, 2008

    Armchair dissident – I can tell you exactly what the average Brummie will make of this:

    (shrugs shoulders)

    “Ooo cares?”

  29. #29 Moggie
    July 29, 2008

    I haven’t taken much notice of the web filtering world for the past few years, but back when this sort of software started to make the news, it was reported that some of the software companies responsible had a heavily rightwing Christian slant, which was reflected in their blocklists. I suspect that the council are just clueless but innocent victims, here: it’s not like atheism is a particularly minority or controversial viewpoint in Brum.

    As for Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society saying “Witchcraft these days is called Wicca, which is an actual legitimate and recognised religion”: it’s a pity he didn’t add “of course, it’s at least as ridiculous as the others, but it shouldn’t be singled out for blocking”.

  30. #30 wÒÓ†
    July 29, 2008
  31. #31 Obrien
    July 29, 2008

    PZ’z Post is hilarious.

    He bans, he deletes, he alters, and now he is whining about points of view that someone does not like being blocked.

    If people like PZ actually had political power, you would see oppression such as never been seen.

    In this country, that is.

  32. #32 True Bob
    July 29, 2008

    Hmm, as we saw so recently, witchcraft is also a christy belief. Why are those poor,downtrodden, meek christers being persectued?!!1!1!!

  33. #33 gdlchmst
    July 29, 2008

    Finally, proof that our right-wing government rags on the Chinese government out of sheer jealousy.

  34. #34 Benjamin Franklin
    July 29, 2008

    I suppose we could even stretch that category to cover pornography, since it largely seems to consist of imaginary bodies airbrushed and photoshopped into an impossibly ideal form.

    PZ, It’s just a rack.

  35. #35 Christopher Waldrop
    July 29, 2008

    PZ’z Post is hilarious.
    He bans, he deletes, he alters, and now he is whining about points of view that someone does not like being blocked.
    If people like PZ actually had political power, you would see oppression such as never been seen.
    In this country, that is.

    I take it you have actual evidence of PZ altering comments or articles? Deletion is understandable; it’s his blog, he can allow or remove whatever he likes.
    Could you define “oppression” for us, though? I suspect your definition, Obrien, is like the one used by many religious people. That definition is, of course, “I have a right to impose my beliefs on other people. When I’m asked to stop telling other people how to think and act because they don’t conform to my beliefs, that’s oppression.”

  36. #36 Armchair Dissident
    July 29, 2008

    it’s a pity he didn’t add “of course, it’s at least as ridiculous as the others, but it shouldn’t be singled out for blocking”.

    Given that it is Terry Sanderson, he probably did, but the BBC just took it for granted ;-)

    it was reported that some of the software companies responsible had a heavily rightwing Christian slant

    That may well be the case here. Certainly in 2007, the guy responsible for web-filtering at K9-Blue Coat (the web-filtering software in question) appears to be one John Carosella. I don’t know that he’s right-wing, but he is catholic. It appears that he helped to produce a film called “Article VI, Faith. Politics. America”, which has a blog here:

    http://article6themovie.blogspot.com/

    In the last entry (Feb 2008, posted by Mr Carosella), he discusses whether it was right for the Catholic Church to threaten to deny Communion to John Kerry. Despite apparently being of the opinion that there’s too much religion in American politics, he concludes that the Catholic Church really should have done so. The apparent irony doesn’t seem to occur to him.

    Besides that, you just have to look at some of the categories they have, I mean, “Intimate Apparel/Swimwear”. This is one inseparable category: you can’t block “Intimate apparel” (which I’m presuming is lingerie and the like) without block “Swimwear” (which you can go to the local pool to see). Similarly the categories they block by default for various age ranges: these are all moral decisions.

    I did find it ironic, browsing around their web-page, that they’re all in favour of parents controlling what their children can or cannot see on the internet (not a bad thing), but then advocate handing the decision as to what fits in to what shoe-box of “good” vs “bad” over to a private company.

  37. #37 gdlchmst
    July 29, 2008

    Oops, gotta read that more carefully. I assumed it was Birmingham, Alabama. Scratch my first comment.

  38. #38 Michelle
    July 29, 2008

    I’m wondering… Since this internet connection’s paid with taxpayer money… This is illegal discrimination, right?

  39. #39 Cujo359
    July 29, 2008

    I suppose we could even stretch that category to cover pornography

    There’s really no need to bother with that rhetorical stretch. Porn and online gambling are normally prohibited, if only because they’re potentially addictive and have nothing to do with work without resorting to analogies or metaphors.

    Meanwhile, this is a clear case of discrimination against particular points of view. It should either be that all sites that focus on religion should be off limits, or none.

    I’d prefer that employees had the choice to view what they want, as long as it’s not interfering with their work.

  40. #40 mds
    July 29, 2008

    If you want to see what category Blue Coat considers a site to be, if you visit http://sitereview.bluecoat.com/sitereview.jsp?url=<url of site> it will tell you, and also let you propose corrections.

  41. #41 Dutch Delight
    July 29, 2008

    @Obrien

    The only one who can possibly be “oppressed” in a secular state is the religion that managed to infiltrate the secular state in the first place.

  42. #42 Richard Harris
    July 29, 2008

    Obrien, PZ’s point is there’s f***-all difference between the religions mentioned, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the cult of Wicca. Religions are merely cults with more members.

    The previously named religions are, to rationalists, essentially indistinguishable from witchcraft. In other words, they’re all a load of crap. There aren’t any feckin’ gods, angels, witches, devils, goblins, or fairies.

    And atheism dosn’t involve any superstitious crap.

  43. #43 Janine ID
    July 29, 2008

    Obrien, many thanks to you pointing out how PZ censures everyone here. Your concerns have been noted and left on the side of the road.

  44. #44 Benjamin Geiger
    July 29, 2008

    I work for a county school board in the US. We use Bluecoat as well. Employees go through the same proxy that students use.

    Among the categories that are blocked:

    * Government/Legal
    * Computers/Internet
    * Reference

    The Panda’s Thumb is blocked under “Newsgroups/Forums”, but Answers in Genesis isn’t. Daily Kos is blocked under “Political/Activist Groups”, but Free Republic isn’t. Somehow, they missed Pharyngula.

    The zinger? Most of these are apparently from a default blocklist, as things that are specifically forbidden are added to a different category: “PCS-Blocked-Sites”. Among the blocked sites are YouTube, MySpace, and Wikipedia. (Wikipedia is blocked because we pay for Grolier’s, and they want to force people to use it.)

    Then again, this is also a school board that made news recently. Luckily, thanks to the efforts of the Church of the FSM, they decided not to pursue the issue. (I was planning to take off my ID badge, re-enter as a visitor, and attend the meeting.)

    There’s a reason so many of my coworkers have cellular data cards. I VPN to my home computer, but they’ve announced that they’re planning to lock down all ports other than 80 and 443.

  45. #45 clinteas
    July 29, 2008

    @ 31,Obrien :

    //PZ’z Post is hilarious.
    He bans, he deletes, he alters, and now he is whining about points of view that someone does not like being blocked.//

    Im trying to find all the logical fallacies amassed in that one sentence,but Im struggling !

    Mate,people here install killfiles,because PZ wont ban or delete any lunatics’ posts at all,unless they really behave like the worst kind of troll.

  46. #46 Bjorn Watland
    July 29, 2008

    I block Google, because people only need access to US county websites to look up information from real estate documents. We have an allow list of sites, rather then a deny list.

  47. #47 Saving Abel
    July 29, 2008

    Has anyone seen Christopher Hitchens debate? I’ve heard he is going to be debating D’Souza in St. Lous September 10th. I found this website http://www.godontrialdebate.com

  48. #48 Benjamin Geiger
    July 29, 2008

    Janine @ #43:

    Don’t you mean: “We appreciate your concern. It is noted, and stupid”?

  49. #49 Glen Davidson
    July 29, 2008

    Fortunately, they can’t really shut out “atheistic views.” For, “atheistic views” range from mere indifference, to critiques of religion, and on to formal declarations that there is no god. The latter they can ban. They can hardly prevent skepticism, not caring about mystical beliefs, etc.

    If this,

    occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism”.

    is punctuated as intended, it would not seem that atheistic views are labeled as a “form of mysticism”. The punctuation would be categorizing “voodoo rituals” as one of a number of forms of mysticism. It’s confusing, because “atheistic views” comes between two mystical belief systems, making one wonder if they intended to include all three labeled “beliefs” as forms of mysticism. The punctuation doesn’t support that reading, however.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  50. #50 Feynmaniac
    July 29, 2008

    “I suppose we could even stretch that category to cover pornography, since it largely seems to consist of imaginary bodies airbrushed and photoshopped into an impossibly ideal form.”

    Desecrating the body of Christ and the holy text of Islam is one thing, but your blog readers will not tolerate your insults of their masturbatory fantasies.

  51. #51 Sigmund
    July 29, 2008

    Wait a second, Birmingham UK?
    Does this software ban annoying accents?

  52. #52 SEF
    July 29, 2008

    The punctuation doesn’t support that reading

    Yes it does. You’re making a rookie US / Oxford comma mistake. In English English there isn’t a comma between the last two items (before the or/and) in such a list. So they’re calling all three preceding things examples of mysticism.

  53. #53 Steven Mooney
    July 29, 2008

    Ha, I thought you meant Birmingham, AL. I live here, so naturally I was thinking, “yeah, that sounds about right.” I was briefly angry, just not at all surprised. Somewhat more shocking for it to be the other one, though.

  54. #54 CSBSH
    July 29, 2008

    “I suppose we could even stretch that category to cover pornography, since it largely seems to consist of imaginary bodies airbrushed and photoshopped into an impossibly ideal form.”

    I see that you’re not very familiar with internet porn, Mr. Myers. :)

  55. #55 Scrofulum
    July 29, 2008

    I’m a tad gutted that a UK council is showing such respect to irrationality. On the other hand, it’s a good sign that such stances are a rare enough occurrence to make the news, and with a negative slant as well.

    By the way, I’m quite interested in this ‘pornography’ you speak of. Does anyone know where I can purchase a pornograph to play it on?

  56. #56 Neural T
    July 29, 2008

    I suppose we could even stretch that category to cover pornography, since it largely seems to consist of imaginary bodies airbrushed and photoshopped into an impossibly ideal form.

    Dude, you just tole me there’s no Santa Claus.

  57. #57 Phro
    July 29, 2008

    Hey! At least air-brushed porn is based on SOMETHING real, right?

  58. #58 SEF
    July 29, 2008

    I checked an astrology site (for which I’d just googled) against BlueCoat and it came back with: “This page is currently categorized as Society/Daily Living” – which was further defined as:

    Sites providing information on matters of daily life. This includes but is not limited to pet care, home improvement, fashion/beauty tips, hobbies and other tasks that comprise everyday life. It does not include sites relating to entertainment, sports, jobs, personal pages or other topics which already have a specific category.

    Then I finally bumped into the actual classification page.

  59. #59 oriole
    July 29, 2008

    Obrien: “If people like PZ actually had political power, you would see oppression such as never been seen.”

    You mean “the likes of which have never been seen.”

    Your poor reading skills are perhaps not surprising, Obrien, in light of your ignorance of proper English usage. PZ only made a comment about a category error, viz. the inclusion of “atheism” under “forms of mysticism”; he didn’t complain about the choice of blocked websites.

    Try reading PZ’s post again, Obrien, but this time turn off your anti-rational Christian fundie filter first.

  60. #60 The Mongoose
    July 29, 2008

    From the said classification page:

    54 – Religion

    Sites that promote and provide information on conventional or unconventional religious or quasi-religious subjects, as well as churches, synagogues, or other houses of worship. Does not include sites containing alternative religions such as Wicca or witchcraft (Alternative Spirituality/Occult) or atheist beliefs (Political/Activist Groups).

    Well that explains it all then.

  61. #61 Glen Davidson
    July 29, 2008

    Yes it does. You’re making a rookie US / Oxford comma mistake. In English English there isn’t a comma between the last two items (before the or/and) in such a list. So they’re calling all three preceding things examples of mysticism.

    Hmm, well okay. I’m no rookie, though, having no pretensions at all to do anything other than recognize the spellings that the English use.

    Seems to me to be an ambiguous way to punctuate, though I suppose the English simply use different constructions when they want to set off a generalization to show that it applies to the entire list.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  62. #62 C R Stamey
    July 29, 2008

    Has anyone seen Christopher Hitchens debate? I’ve heard he is going to be debating D’Souza in St. Lous September 10th. I found this website http://www.godontrialdebate.com

    Posted by: Saving Abel | July 29, 2008 11:58 AM

    Thanks for the heads up. I am in st. Louis and have waited for this opportunity. I will spread the word.

  63. #63 firemancarl
    July 29, 2008

    Woot! Who knew the Taliban was alive and well in Birmingham,Talibana?

  64. #64 aleph1=c
    July 29, 2008

    My school district blocks the weirdest things:

    1. wolfram/mathematica; reason: spam (huh?)
    2. John Conway’s game of life; reason: games (it’s a math site)
    3. Los Angeles County voter information; reason: adult lifestyles (WTF?)
    4. Edwin Meese v. Playboy; reason: uses the word “playboy”

    I suppose government offices and schools have the right to block anything they want as long as there is no discrimination based on blah blah, but the current state of blocking technology is ridiculous. I am constantly having to request that a site be unblocked because I want to use it for educational purposes. Then, in a few days, the site is automatically reblocked. I often have to change my lesson plans on the fly. It’s very frustrating.

  65. #65 Brownian, OM
    July 29, 2008

    A: “No. The people at Blue Coat who work on the K9 project are parents. Because of our work on the software we make for corporations, we know what harmful stuff is out there on the Internet. We don’t want your kids – or our kids – running into it.”

    So, by default does Obrien agree with the above?

    Whatever.

    Fucking loser.

  66. #66 Sigmund
    July 29, 2008

    What sort of idiot came up with these classifications?

    “Blue Coat Category Descriptions
    22 – Alternative Spirituality/Occult
    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.
    Examples: churchofsatan.com, astroawareness.com, ghostpix.com”

  67. #67 jagannath
    July 29, 2008

    Frankly, I am highly offended and will now access loads and loads of porn in protest (Will wank too but only in protest) of the casual dismissal of porn in the same category with religion. I call for public protest and demand the position of professor Myers to be given a true pornoholic.

    Do they not teach in the UMM that internet was made for porn.

  68. #68 SteveM
    July 29, 2008

    #11:

    I block people at my work from Pharyngula, but also from MySpace, FaceBook, Google, MSN, Yahoo, Ask.com, and any other site which isn’t needed for people to do their jobs. I’m a jerk like that.

    I don’t think you quite understand what PZ is commenting on. It is not that his blog is blocked, it’s that it is blocked for ideological reasons and not productivity. No one is calling you a jerk for limiting your employees to sites they need for their jobs, but that is not what Birmingham is doing. They can visit all kinds of religious sites not related to their jobs, but not atheist sites or other “mystical” sites. Suppose you allowed your employees to only access Democrat sites but not Republican sites (or the equivalents in your own nation)? Then you would be a jerk.

  69. #69 Katrina
    July 29, 2008

    According to the BlueCoat website, Pharyngula is listed under “Reference” along with the rest of Sb.

    Interestingly, RichardDawkins.net is listed under the category “Religion.”

    http://sitereview.bluecoat.com/sitereview.jsp

  70. #70 jj
    July 29, 2008

    Re: #40,

    Fortunately, scienceblogs.com (including Pharyngula) is categorized as:

    49 – Reference

    Sites containing personal, professional, or educational reference, including online dictionaries, maps, censuses, almanacs, library catalogues, genealogy-related sites and scientific information.

    Internet Infidels (iidb.org) is categorized in both Newsgroups/Forums and Society/Daily Living. So at least one major (perhaps largest) atheist web site is not under Religion.

  71. #71 Christian Ridley
    July 29, 2008

    Are you serious?!
    I looked as this article and assumed, obviously naively, that it was Birmingham, Alabama, but no! Birmingham, UK!
    I really though that we athiest’s in the UK had more freedom and respect than in the US, but obviously not as much as I thought.
    Unbelievable. Lets hope the NSS make some impact.

  72. #72 The Chemist
    July 29, 2008

    First of all: PZ, we’ve been spending less time in the lab doing a different kind of research I take it? :-P

    Second of all: I too thought Alabama at first. I was wondering why a “National Secular Society” was getting involved instead of the ACLU.

    Third of all: I despise people who use dictionary definitions as though they mean something for anyone other than pedants. That said, mysticism!=atheism.

    Fourth of all: I don’t have a fourth point, I just got carried away.

  73. #73 Undo
    July 29, 2008

    They can use vtunnel.com or similar to get around the filtering software.

  74. #74 jj
    July 29, 2008

    #69, Dawkins site is under religion, but interestingly, that category excludes Bluecoat.com’s definition of alternative religions such as Wicca and atheist beliefs.

    54 – Religion

    Sites that promote and provide information on conventional or unconventional religious or quasi-religious subjects, as well as churches, synagogues, or other houses of worship. Does not include sites containing alternative religions such as Wicca or witchcraft (Alternative Spirituality/Occult) or atheist beliefs (Political/Activist Groups).

  75. #75 kid bitzer
    July 29, 2008

    this is a very straight forward violation of the establishment clause of 1A, which was incorporated against the states by the 14A.

    they don’t have a leg to stand on.

  76. #76 SEF
    July 29, 2008

    incorporated against the states

    Erm… Would those be the United States (ie wrong Birmingham and wrong constitution) or some version of European States (to which the UK is only partly signed up)? On the other hand, if BlueCoat is a US company or trades in the US at all …

  77. #77 Noni Mausa
    July 29, 2008

    Two minor points:

    – Irony on parade — Wicca is the only religion which originated in the UK, and has been legal there since 1953

    – Wicca is actually one of the least cultlike faiths you will ever encounter. One common Wiccan declaration is “There is no one, right, true and only way!”

    You can grade the cultishness of groups (religious or otherwise) by accessing the Bonewitz Cult Evaluation Framework — print it out and mark it up in pencil for your favorite mystical / religious / pyramid racketeering groups. Wicca scores so low it’s practically not a “group” at all.

    Noni

  78. #78 Kerr
    July 29, 2008

    Just had a look through the Blue Coat category descriptions. Looks like the one blocked is this one.

    22 – Alternative Spirituality/Occult

    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.

    Doh! It’s even worse than the snippet quoted by PZ. We atheists are certainly known for our “incantations, curses and magic powers”

  79. #79 negentropyeater
    July 29, 2008

    “No. The people at Blue Coat who work on the K9 project are parents. Because of our work on the software we make for corporations, we know what harmful stuff is out there on the Internet. We don’t want your kids – or our kids – running into it.”

    WE KNOW WHAT IS HARMFUL ON THE INTERNET…

    When I read this, it had a slight orwellian ring to it.
    Have people become that stupid and lazy that they would trust and delegate to a few person the responsibility to decide FOR THEM or FOR THEIR KIDS what is harmful or not ?

  80. #80 Dancaban
    July 29, 2008

    Black Sabbath are really pissed off now.

  81. #81 SEF
    July 29, 2008

    What do you mean “become”. The vast majority of people have always been that stupid and lazy. Laziness is a major driving force in the universe. Light going in “straight” lines, least energy for bubbles with surface tension, vaguely spherical stars and planets under gravity, much of evolution and many human inventions (eg the washing machine).

  82. #82 Moggie
    July 29, 2008

    # 77:

    Wicca is the only religion which originated in the UK

    Aren’t you forgetting football?

  83. #83 Quiet Desperation
    July 29, 2008

    atheistic views, voodoo rituals

    You keep doing that voodoo that you do so well, PZ. :-)

  84. #84 Sastra
    July 29, 2008

    The reason atheism is included under “occult practices, voodoo rituals, mysticism,… spells, incantations, curses and magic powers … the paranormal” is because too much of the general public considers atheism to be weird, fringe, strange, and wicked. Atheists “worship themselves” or need “more faith” or want to take away people’s hopes. If you don’t believe in God, then that’s just like throwing out a voodoo curse. Right.

    It’s just one more case of someone or some organization trying to marginalize a rational, scientific, naturalistic world view as being “looney toons.” Everyone believes in God. Sure, they do. Be reassured. It’s normal, and supported by both common sense and reason.

    Unlike those things that are not normal, and twist the world into bizarre and unfriendly shapes. Not believing in the supernatural AT ALL is the same thing as believing in the supernatural TOO MUCH. I suspect this strange classification system is just another example of “The Fallacy of the Golden Middle.”

    Since this involves Birmingham, UK, I’ll say it thus: wankers.

  85. #85 Heliprogenus
    July 29, 2008

    What, you mean those porn pictures are fake? Really? Oh no, my whole world is crumbling. My sense of reality is shattering to a billion miniscule pieces. I can’t imagine that Violeta, Cindi, Monique’s 1-5 are all non-existant. Why, oh why was I born in this retched world of illusion.

    Anyway, in all seriousness, every once in a while, when the ignorant religious drones suddenly break from their fantasy world and actually embrace reality, those reactions described above are not dissimilar. The one thing that does become obvious is the sense of freedom that’s suddenly sprung forth by jettisoning all the nonsense. Once the reality of owning one’s own life comes to fruition, there’s no greater sense of control and awe.

  86. #86 John Phillips, FCD
    July 29, 2008

    Sastra said “Since this involves Birmingham, UK, I’ll say it thus: wankers.

    That one term covers a lot to do with Brum quite accurately and I say that as someone who’s group of closest friends includes a couple of great Brummies. In fact, when I showed them this story, wankers was probably the mildest epithet they used :)

  87. #87 Bluestocking
    July 29, 2008

    “WE KNOW WHAT IS HARMFUL ON THE INTERNET…
    When I read this, it had a slight orwellian ring to it.
    Have people become that stupid and lazy that they would trust and delegate to a few person the responsibility to decide FOR THEM or FOR THEIR KIDS what is harmful or not?”

    I guess by your rather ill-informed statement, I am stupid and lazy because I use K9. In my case, I use it to keep my very young daughter from stumbling upon internet porn when she is at the computer.

    You should know that I get to cherry pick the things that are filtered out, not K9. It is not an absolute block of some “list of dangerous sites” collected by some small group of zealots. It is a tool–a very useful one–that can be used to filter internet content. In my case it filters all pornographic and adult/mature content, as I’d rather my daughter did not form her ideas of sex and sexuality under the tutelage of the internet.

    …Come to think of it, it would be nice if some men didn’t either.

    So anyway, you can put your steaming hot cup of righteous indignation down now. Individuals using K9 are very much in control of what it blocks and does not block.

  88. #88 Nomen Nescio
    July 29, 2008

    web filtering software overblocking and misclassifying in ridiculously mindless ways? that sentence is severely redundant; the first three words would quite suffice.

    web filtering software getting in the way of your browsing? that’s what TOR was invented for.

    idiot network admins locking down all ports other than the ones they filter? fuck ‘em, time to get your own connection, the one they provide is obviously not going to be allowed to be useful to you. step one, start leeching off of unsecured wifi nets; then decide whether to build your own (possibly ad-hoc) wifi net, or go wimax or something.

  89. #89 Marcus Ranum
    July 29, 2008

    visit http://sitereview.bluecoat.com/sitereview.jsp?url= it will tell you, and also let you propose corrections.

    Huge potential for mayhem, there. Hmmmmmm…. I’ve always considered christian sites to be gambling sites ‘cuz of that whole Pascal’s Wager thing…

    (wanders off, whistling, to propose some corrections…)

  90. #90 steve_1
    July 29, 2008

    I used to work on a US Air Force base where answersingenesis.org was accessible, but talkorigins.org was blocked. I’d imagine that this policy is probably soon to be true across the entire USAF, if not the DoD.

  91. #91 decrepitoldfool
    July 29, 2008

    Wouldn’t wanna work hard – the mentality behind filtering is way simplistic. Back when my son was in high school he got in trouble for typing in xxx.lanl.gov in a browser in the school library. They wouldn’t let him show them the site to demonstrate it wasn’t an inappropriate site.

  92. #92 h2g2bob
    July 29, 2008

    Someone beat me to asking what their policy is…

    http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/internet_usage_policy_2

  93. #93 aleph1=c
    July 29, 2008

    @91 “They wouldn’t let him show them the site to demonstrate it wasn’t an inappropriate site.”

    fucking assholes

  94. #94 Ed Darrell
    July 29, 2008

    Bluenose Software? P.Z., how do you know your site is blocked? If it is blocked, how do you know it’s blocked for a falsely presumed atheistic bent, and not because you carry science content?

    Maybe my site is blocked, too — does that mean that they can’t tell the difference between an atheist and a Christian (hey, you’d be astounded how many people make that mistake). If so, what good is the damned Bluenose Software?

  95. #95 Quidam
    July 29, 2008

    They CAN read this site, and richarddawkins.net.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/ is tagged as “Reference”
    http://richarddawkins.net/ is classified as “Religion”
    http://www.pandasthumb.org/ is classified as “Blogs/Newsgroups”
    http://www.antievolution.org is classified as ‘Education’

    In other words, they have no clue. Please go to their site http://sitereview.bluecoat.com/sitereview.jsp and suggest that it’s a mistake to classify richarddawkins.net as ‘religion’ and suggest ‘education’ or ‘Reference’ as a better match. You might choose to point out that Richard Dawkins, is an ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer. He holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford and is a professorial fellow of New College, Oxford. Clearly a reference or educational site.

    It would be counter productive to use invective or to suggest a religious bias. They likely do not have an agenda but are just responding to people that do.

  96. #96 BirminghamIsLame
    July 29, 2008

    The City Council really doesn’t have anything better to do with their time then pander to specific forms of religion? Hey, while their at it, they should shot all the atheist squirrels that run across their Christian Landscape…and ban all cars that don’t pray to Jesus…and hell, instead of filtering out atheist websites, why don’t they just ban all computers, last time I checked, they didn’t believe in god either…

  97. #97 TheHeat
    July 29, 2008

    I’m glad that someone put up the BlueCoat page of category descriptions. It demonstrates schizophrenic judgement. It shows that BlueCoat was responsible for shoving atheism in with mysticism. It also shows that their confused on their own terms.
    The Religion category specifically distinguishes atheism from mysticism and indicates that atheism belongs in the Political/Activist grouping. Heroically, it also tries to maintain a distinction between “unconventional” religions (which belong with Religion) and “alternative” religions. I wonder who their kow-towing to with the “unconventional” nonsense? Fringe catholic sects? Snake-handlers?

  98. #98 John Morales
    July 29, 2008

    There’s a related post on netnannyism as policy in Australia at Evolving Thoughts.

  99. #99 Fernando Magyar
    July 29, 2008

    I block people at my work from Pharyngula, but also from MySpace, FaceBook, Google, MSN, Yahoo, Ask.com, and any other site which isn’t needed for people to do their jobs. I’m a jerk like that.
    Posted by: Bjorn Watland

    You might even be the root cause of a loss of productivity.
    I work for a small software company and anyone there can access any site they want to at any time. You know what? Not many people do.

    We actually work pretty damn hard and if we want to read Pharyngula during a coffee break or lunch we can. BTW we tend not to hire sociopaths, morons, and slackers.

    I also spend a lot of time logged into computer systems around the globe and I have a hunch there is a direct correlation between between the companies with the most restrictive policies having lousy morale and low productivity.

  100. #100 rpenner
    July 29, 2008

    The company’s name is Blue Coat Systems, Inc. of Sunnyvale, California. http://www.bluecoat.com/ It is not immediately obvious why the BBC tries to make it a single word.

    At a guess, the government of Birmingham, West Midlands, are using a content categorization service (i.e. people are paid to look at web sites and categorize the content they see as part of some subscription service) in conjunction with the company’s flagship product, the Proxy SG. I am of the opinion that the decision for a city government to block sites based on some third party’s categorization of their content as atheist would be a unrepairable violation of the First Amendment — if it were in the US. As this is in the UK, I rely on the BBC article text which on the face of it seems to be correct.

    Under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, it is unlawful to discriminate against workers because of their religion or belief, which includes atheism.

    http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2003/20031660.htm

    Kudos to the UK for not exempting its Legislature from this law.

    While one reader has linked to a content categorization service provided by Blue Coat, the Proxy SG may be configured to use other Content Filtering services provided by many other vendors. http://www.bluecoat.com/products/sg/8100/features So, from the details of the article alone, we remain ignorant if any mentioned site is blocked or not — which is only transient information in any case. (i.e “Software is infinitely mutable”)

    Cisco Systems, a much larger player in the networking game, got the contract to do something similar for all of China “Great Firewall of China.” http://www.smh.com.au/news/beijing2008/reporters-vent-fury-at-great-firewall-of-china/2008/07/27/1217097058479.html

  101. #101 John Morales
    July 29, 2008

    … it is unlawful to discriminate against workers because of their religion or belief, which includes atheism.

    Hmm. Interesting phrasing.

  102. #102 gaypaganunitarianagnostic
    July 29, 2008

    Satanism is based on Christianity, Wicca is not.

  103. #103 Bubba Sixpack
    July 29, 2008

    What is it with Britain and Australia, and their catering to the woo lately?

  104. #104 Caveat
    July 29, 2008

    Much like the Cheese, the Atheist stands alone.

  105. #105 Michael
    July 29, 2008

    Agree with Fernando — restricting web access is likely to make the workplace seem oppressive where it doesn’t need to be — and there is the potential for such places to lose productivity due to dissatisfaction. Infantilising employees can only hurt the workplace.

  106. #106 John Morales
    July 29, 2008

    Bubba @103: Here in Oz, your would-be cultural hegemony’s effects lag a few years.

    Sad to say.

  107. #107 Kinzua Kid
    July 29, 2008

    I reviewed the BlueCoat site categorization for http://www.discovery.org using the link from an earlier post and it came up as: “Education”
    I helpfully submitted a request to recategorize the site as “Religion” and “Political/Activist Groups” using their handy form.

    My justification in their comments…
    “The Discovery Institute’s mission is Religious Political Activism, not education or science. This is quite well documented in their own literature as well as the text from the site- which promotes a “scientific” worldview as originally created from a god or other “intelligence” not subject to natural laws. This site should be categorized accordingly.”

  108. #108 Nullsession
    July 30, 2008

    I’ve seen a lot of people jump on this and start hyping things. (Scream first, think rationally later..?) In fact, it is very common to use a subscription service and Blue Coat is one of the very best. It doesn’t lump atheism in with the occult, and I get to every legitimate atheist site from work. However, if people select certain categories, trying to honestly protect their employees from viruses and malware, they can end up blocking something that they didn’t intend to. It isn’t really worth blowing it out of proportion. There are VERY REAL reasons to protect your work network with a proxy service, that the non-security minded person doesn’t consider. It isn’t a conspiracy. :-)

    Now, if some “loon” at a government office went on a crusade to intentionally ban atheist sites, or if the city council brought up and banned them at a meeting, that political decision is worth some vocal objections, but I doubt this was politically motivated. And Blue Coat has no agenda.

    As you can see, there is no category that intentionally blocks atheist sites, unless they also fall under a secondary category. Blue Coat is usually very quick to verify and reclassify sites that are misidentified in my experience.
    http://www.bluecoat.com/doc/789

  109. #109 Pimientita
    July 30, 2008

    @#90

    I used to work on a US Air Force base where answersingenesis.org was accessible, but talkorigins.org was blocked. I’d imagine that this policy is probably soon to be true across the entire USAF, if not the DoD.

    steve_1: Do you know which software was being used? Also, you alluded to possible future military wide blocking, but do you know if this is fairly common practice now on military bases? Is this actually legal? I mean, I understand (but don’t wholly agree with) blocking access in the workplace for “productivity” and in schools, but people live on bases and using filtering software throughout the whole base seems to me to be an unfair restriction on the private lives of military personnel and especially their families who do not have some sort of code of conduct to live up to.

  110. #110 G. Tingey
    July 30, 2008

    Blocking software?

    Oh NO, not AGAIN!

    There is a classic series of Ecology/Natural History/Botany/Zoology textbooks, called the “New Naturalists”, the first of which was published in 1945 – they are still going, and number 106, about Dragonflies has just been published.

    However, people trying to get hold of back-copies of number #62 had terrible problems, because of the subject matter – the small birds of the genus Parus

    It’s title?
    British Tits

  111. #111 negentropyeater
    July 30, 2008

    #87

    Well then they shouldn’t claim that they “know what is harmfull on the internet”. Noone should make that claim. This should be up to the user to decide what he considers harmful for himself or hor his kids, not to this company.
    And even then I can see a lot of abuse with all these categories : if you want to block adult web sites, you don’t need all these pathetic categories. So what about right wing Christian fundie parents who don’t want their gay child do access any gay content, or any non Christian content or any left wing political content ? Is that also ok ?
    And I bet you most users or corporations that use this are far too lazy to go into the details, as is evidenced with what is happening here in Birmingham.

    And anyway, as has been shown with a few examples above their categorizations are fucked up.

    So, filtering x rated content has been done for a while now, I don’t see the value of this kind of software that purports to filter all types of “harmful” content.

  112. #112 Nix
    July 30, 2008

    Wicca is the only religion which originated in the UK

    Um… Anglicanism? If you grind the schisms finely enough, Puritanism?

  113. #113 Ken
    July 30, 2008

    Nice to a sensible comment finally turning up at #108. Pharyngula – also for adults!

  114. #114 NRG
    July 30, 2008

    I’ve expanded on this at my own blog but to quickly summarise – Do you really think its more likely that someone in Birmingham City Council deliberately chose to block atheist sites or they failed to notice that their american software was doing it by default?

  115. #115 Sharon
    July 30, 2008

    The gov’s office of administration in PA runs Surf Control. We’ve been banned from certain “edu” pages when they were catagorized as “arts”. Apparently the Gov doesn’t want you to be artsy on the job. Science Blogs was blocked. I requested access and my supervisor approved (he is an enthusiastic web-user). The IT folks questioned it (after looking at the top posts for that day and seeing things about Beagles and nazism – really having to with Darwin’s boat and the misuse of evolution theory). I got it approved. Popular sites about religion are blocked but usually opened at lunch time between 11:30-1 when you can rightfully waste your time.

  116. #116 SteveO
    July 30, 2008

    Well, here in good old BirmingHAM, AL mayor Larry Langford spent city money ordering 2000 sackcloths and ashes for a large revival meeting to pray for an end to violence in the city.

    Don’t believe me?
    http://www.al.com/news/birminghamnews/index.ssf?/base/news/120911137345020.xml&coll=2

  117. #117 frog
    July 30, 2008

    nullsession: However, if people select certain categories, trying to honestly protect their employees from viruses and malware, they can end up blocking something that they didn’t intend to. It isn’t really worth blowing it out of proportion. There are VERY REAL reasons to protect your work network with a proxy service, that the non-security minded person doesn’t consider. It isn’t a conspiracy. :-)

    Ok, that’s just stupid. Unless the proxy is only blocking by history of viral contamination, and not by “category”, that’s a useless way to block infestation.

    Here’s what you do if you actually knew and thought about security: 1) You subdivide you network internally, firewalling each group of computers from others, particularly broadcast protocols. 2) You don’t use windows directly on any machine, but run it inside a vm that clears the OS on every reboot, and reboot often. 3) You hire a decent IT guy (unfortunately, there’s only three).

    Your solution is just pretending — aka, “due diligence”, aka, “I’ve covered my ass”.

  118. #118 Tony Sidaway
    July 30, 2008

    I wonder if it blocks searches on the English town of Scunthorpe?

  119. #119 Tony Sidaway
    July 30, 2008

    SteveO writes: Well, here in good old BirmingHAM, AL mayor Larry Langford spent city money ordering 2000 sackcloths and ashes for a large revival meeting to pray for an end to violence in the city.

    Actually from my experience of the town planning monstrosity that is Birmingham City, I would be happy if all Birmingham councillors were required to wear sackcloth and ashes for the next century or so as a public penance.

  120. #120 tangent_woman
    July 30, 2008

    Other wrongness aside, they are blocking access to websites promoting satanism, paganism, wicca and atheism? What kind of categorisation is that?

    I presume that those doing the blocking are Christian?

    Man – that’s like some white collar criminals banning their fellows to communicate with murderers, rapists and … (shock, horror) the innocent!

    That is so very screwed up.

  121. #121 Quidam
    July 31, 2008

    I see
    http://www.richarddawkins.net has been reclassified as Society/Daily Living effrctive July 30.

    That’s an improvement, but it’s still weird.

  122. #122 SC
    August 15, 2008

    Well, perhaps they should be spending more time looking out the window and less time online, anyway:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_midlands/7560392.stm

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