Birmingham Council and its internet access

The NSS was in the news this week after we discovered that Birmingham City Council was installing an internet filtering system to block employees’ access to sites deemed unsuitable. These included those “promoting atheism”, while leaving unrestricted access to “conventional” religious sites.

The system appears to originate in America. From the documentation we have been given, it categorises websites by subject and then appears to give site administrators the option to block categories completely, at certain times, or not at all.

The documentation we have seen proposes complete blocking for the category “Alternative Spirituality/Occult”. This category includes: “Sites that promote 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.”

Conversely, the category labelled “Religion” is completely unrestricted. It is defined as “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 or atheist beliefs (political/activist groups).”

The NSS has written a letter, endorsed by lawyers, to the top echelons of the Council pointing out that if the facts are as reported, it could be in breach of discrimination law and asking them to ensure that atheist sites are not blocked to employees while conventional religious sites are permitted unrestricted access. The Society will again consult its lawyers on the reply before deciding what action to take.

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. We just hope that common sense prevails and the Council resolves the matter itself without submitting themselves needlessly to legal action which would bring more unwelcome publicity.

01 August 2008