Missing the Forest for the Witches

Earlier this month in Missouri, Anaka Hunter and the ACLU filed a lawsuit against a local library for censoring websites about Wicca and Native American religion. News coverage poked fun at the witchy names of the town (Salem) and its librarian (Glenda). Impassioned comments even popped up on the library’s Google maps site. But in focusing on a narrative of a backwoods town with a prejudiced librarian, it is easy to ignore a much more alarming source of censorship: a software company called Netsweeper.

In July 2010, Hunter attempted to use a library computer to research her Native American heritage. But the library had blocked every site she attempted to access. Glenda Wofford, director of the Salem Library, explained that Netsweeper, the library’s Internet filtering service, blocks all of these sites because they are categorized as “occult” and “criminal skills” sites.

Netsweeper, a global corporation based in Canada, categorizes websites and allows clients to choose which ones to block. In addition to following state and federal laws to block child pornography, the Salem Library also elected to block all sites that Netsweeper categorized as related to the “occult” and “criminal skills.” Between them, these categories included almost all sites expressing positive or neutral views about Native American religion, Wicca, or new religious movements.

In addition to the obvious free speech issues involved in Internet censorship, The ACLU argues that Netsweeper privileges Christian perspectives by categorizing minority religions as “occult” and “criminal skills.” Visitors to the Salem Library cannot, for example, access the Wikipedia page on Wicca, though they’re free to read the Catholic Encyclopedia’s page on Paganism. By banning the categories into which minority religions are classified, the library’s policy appears to violate the Constitution’s establishment clause.

By extension, it would be unconstitutional for any government agency to use Netsweeper to censor public access to “occult” sites. However, Netsweeper is a global corporation and thus not particularly concerned with the United States Constitution. In fact, much of their business comes from countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen that have very different notions of free speech and the separation between church and state.

It was thoughtless for the library to check the box marked “occult” when planning their Internet filtering policy, but what’s even more disturbing here is that something as central to a democratic society as which sites can be accessed in a public library have been outsourced to a foreign corporation. How many Americans are affected everyday by Netsweeper’s system of categories? In rushing to compare this story with The Crucible, we may have ignored a greater similarity to 1984.