• Thu. Dec 7th, 2023

Paganism and Censorship on the Net

by Anthony R. Thompson, athomps at adf org

Cyberspace. The Information Superhighway. Surfing the Net. These are all phrases which are flying at us daily with warp speed. How does all this media excitement affect us? More importantly, once you get past the hype, what does all this technology really mean for us as Pagans? Questions like these often raise more questions than they answer, but in this article I’d like to focus on one specific area: Censorship. There is currently very little to prevent someone from posting whatever they like to a web page or newsgroup–truth or falsehood, obscenity or advertisement–and people frequently become justifiably concerned about the quality of the information they download, and what their children might download. Unfortunately, as has always been the case with censorship, what is “unacceptable” is often all too relative. Even more unfortunate for Pagans, as their religions have always been in the non-mainstream ‘fringes’ of society, they have all too often fit into the unacceptable category as well. As parents and various social and religious activists place increased pressure on governments and industry alike to regulate Internet content, there is a very real fear among Pagans that they will be victims of yet another round of discrimination performed in the name of “protecting the children”. This article will explore general trends in censoring Internet content, and specifically how this censorship may affect Pagans now and in the future.


Who Owns the Internet?


From the very beginning, the Internet was founded on a concept of anarchy. Or, more correctly, it was founded on the concept of decentralized control. This was due to the fact that the original network from which the Internet spawned, ARPANET, was a U.S. military project designed to survive a nuclear attack; the network was designed from the start to allow huge portions to go suddenly inoperable and yet have communication among the remaining nodes be maintained easily. Bruce Sterling, coiner of the term “cyberspace” and noted net.personality, has written that since “the basic technology was decentralized and rather anarchic by its very nature, it was difficult to stop people from barging in and linking up somewhere-or-other. In point of fact, nobody wanted to stop them from joining…” (1993). It’s important to realize that for the vast majority of its history, the Internet was neither owned by businesses nor pervaded by the consumerism they tend to promote. Quite the opposite in fact; until 1991 the Internet was explicitly non-commercial, and was pervaded instead by a spirit of freedom and sharing between fellow academics and researchers. Since then, however, millions of corporate dollars have been spent on development of individual sites and networks, and there are currently more than ten times as many corporate domains (host names) on the Internet as non-corporate domains (Krause).

Many people ask, “Who owns the Internet?” The answer depends on what one means by ‘owns’. If the question is, “Is the Internet controlled by a central authority?” then the answer is no. In this sense, the Internet is like an international forum of computers all speaking the same language (specifically, the communications protocol suite named TCP/IP), and any computer that can speak the freely-learned language can be ‘on the Net’. However, if one asks instead, “Who owns and controls the wires that the Internet flows through?” then the answer is a frighteningly small number of telecommunications companies. In this sense, the Internet is like a highway wending its way through many states, with each state responsible for maintenance of its particular section. Some of the major telecom companies controlling portions of the Internet in the U.S. are Ameritech, PacBell, Sprint, US West, and MFS Datanet, and these companies are aggressively pursuing contracts abroad as well (Millsaps). One might ask how greatly owning a portion of the Internet affects the extent that a company could stipulate its content. Currently, it doesn’t appear that these telecommunication companies are interested in doing so at all. Quite simply, their motivation is profit, and their chief concerns at the moment seem to be gaining bandwidth (owning more of the network) and network reliability (making sure their portion works correctly). This is not likely to change soon, as multinational corporations are notorious for placing the bottom line of profit above all else (Barber). However, if censorship should suddenly prove more profitable than open communication, especially on a global scope, it may begin appearing at even this macro level.

What is quite probably more dangerous to the freedom of speech on the Internet is the large number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who rent portions of the Internet backbone from regional providers. This may sound surprising to some, as ISPs are exactly those entities that subscribe people en masse, help them get on the net, and provide technical support when problems occur. However, it’s not as simple as that. Dialing up an ISP’s modem pool and going ‘online’ to cyberspace does not make one an automatically-free ‘cyber-citizen’. In actuality, signing up with and dialing into an ISP almost always involves a set of written or unwritten guidelines and policies. While these have heretofore focused on ‘fair use’ rules and regulations, such as not doing anything to overburden the service’s resources, this may begin to change in the near future.

One particularly ominous event concerning ISPs occurred this past November in a court case of Cyber Promotions v. America Online, in which a Pennsylvania district court ruled that Cyber Promotions and other mass e-mail companies may have e-mail sent to America Online members blocked (Weiner). This appears innocuous and even beneficial (especially if you’re an AOL subscriber), but a closer look reveals the ruling to be quite worrisome. The reason for this is that the basis of the court’s ruling was that America Online does not provide any public forum or service, and as a private commercial organization AOL may thus regulate its communications as it sees fit–including the communications of its subscribers. Assuming that other courts uphold this precedent, it effectively gives any ISP the right to filter and ban its subscribers’ communications as it wishes. AOL, the largest single ISP in the country (over 8 million subscribers), already has a reputation for canceling accounts because they traffic in information that doesn’t fit with the company’s “family-oriented” vision, and this only serves to further legitimize such blatant censorship, this time legally. What does this ruling mean for Internet users, and especially non-mainstreamer ones such as Pagans? In a phrase, buy wisely. Investigate any potential ISP’s policies before you make a commitment you may regret, and support others in buying wisely, too.

Who Regulates the Internet?

While Internet Service Providers and their usage contracts certainly represent a potential threat to any online citizen’s freedom of speech, the risk can in some sense be mediated by wise consumerism. However, there are other threats as well, ones that may not be so easily avoided. Governmental legislation and private sector politics may come to have a far greater–and far more unavoidable–effect on defining exactly what is ‘decent’ and what is not, as well as who can view what.

On February 8, 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and with it the highly-controversial Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA). Self-described as a “bill to protect the public from the misuse of the telecommunications network and telecommunications devices and facilities,” the CDA would have relied on a “vague and blatantly unconstitutional ‘indecency’ standard” to achieve its stated purpose (Center for Democracy and Technology). However, the same day that President Clinton signed the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of other electronic privacy groups filed suit in a Philadelphia District Court against the government on the grounds that the Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional. By June of 1996 the ACLU had won its suit; the three-judge panel wrote that the law would have had a “chilling effect on free expression,” and Judge Dalzell wrote that “as the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion.” The Department of Justice has, however, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and the future of the CDA and ultimately free speech on the Internet is currently unknown (Gottlieb; Sloviter, Buckwalter and Dalzell).

Somewhat hopeful concerning government regulation is a recent paper published by the FCC entitled “Digital Tornado: The Internet and Telecommunications Policy”, in which it takes the position that the “role of the government is to make the world safe for the Internet and the people who use it and then get the hell out of the way”. While it only addresses issues of direct concern to the FCC, it apparently does so quite well, and was hailed by the Voters Telecommunications Watch as “a deeply encouraging development after watching the Clinton administration strangle a new American industry… an excellent job from an agency that has a lot of power and, no doubt, the temptation to use this power to influence the Internet”. We can only hope that other government agencies such as the Department of Commerce and the FBI adopt a similarly non-interventionist role, though we must also remember that government may serve to protect consumer and public interests as well, through anti-trust laws and promotion of information access (Krause).

With its introduction of the popular Internet Explorer 3.0, Microsoft Corp. included manifold enhancements and additions from the 2.1 version. One of them was the introduction of a ‘ratings’ system, whereby one could choose organizations one trusts to rate web pages in a variety of areas including violence, language, sex, and nudity. In so doing, Microsoft was shrewdly capitalizing on the voices of many parents seeking to regulate their children’s access to the online information world. Parents seem unwilling to wait for the slow hand of government to move, and industry is willing to accommodate them for profit and to reduce the amount of active censoring the government might legislate. For example, the Internet Parental Control Frequently Asked Questions list states that “it is very difficult to write constitutional restrictions on speech, as we have learned from almost ten years of court testing of the Dial-A-Porn statutes. Governmental restrictions are not the answer to those serious about addressing the issue… [third party ratings systems are] an extremely popular method of controlling children’s access to content that has both the support of the market and free speech advocates” (Safdar & Cherry). With third party ratings systems, parents can choose rating organizations to place their trust in and set a parent-defined level of information filtering/blocking for their children, though the authors of the above-mentioned question list note that “parental control (i.e., you giving your child guidance on what is appropriate) has been available for hundreds of years and continues to be the best approach to the issue of monitoring your child’s use of the Internet”.

In addition to supporting the Recreational Software Advisory Council on the Internet’s author-based ratings system, Internet Explorer has the ability to add other ratings systems as well. There are currently over 10 such ratings systems, and more may yet appear; some of the more popular include SurfWatch, Net Nanny, and CyberPatrol (Safdar & Cherry). The danger with third party rating systems, however, is that many parents may have neither the time nor desire to verify that the systems’ criteria match their own and may instead simply accept simple, benign, and positive-sounding phrases on web pages or press releases to be representative of the quality of such systems.

CyberPatrol, for instance, purports to utilize a panel of parents and teachers to “protect kids while safeguarding the American tradition of self-expression” (Microsystems Software, Inc.). On the list of banned sites, however, are a “130-nation network of environment activists called Environet, a Jewish community guide called The Jewish Bulletin and the anti-censorship archives of the Electronic Frontier Foundation” (Waldie). And, not surprisingly, there are quite a few Pagan sites that are on the ‘CyberNOT’ inappropriate list. For example, http://www.cris.com/~goddess/wicca.html contains a very basic introduction to Wicca as practiced by many Pagans (Branwen). The words ‘sex’ or ‘nudity’ aren’t to be found therein, nor is ‘skyclad’; in fact, the closest phrase thereto is likely “Wiccans generally believe in the duality of life and nature, and this can be represented spiritually by the aspects of masculinity and femininity”. Yet CyberPatrol managed to rate the page as unacceptable in all 12 of its categories, including nudity, partial nudity, sexual acts, gross depictions, satanic/cult, drugs, militant extremists, violence/profanity, alcohol and tobacco, questionable illegal/gambling, sex education and intolerance (Finkelstein). I discovered that even my own home page (www.adf org/~athomps) was banned, likely due to the very risqué words ‘pagan’ and ‘religious’.

While CyberPatrol claims to have a review board composed of members of various liberal-minded organizations (including the National Organization of Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the board meets only once every two months to review complaints of poor ratings, and their decisions are final One wonders how many Pagan resources on the Internet are rated in such a way without their authors even knowing of the event or having the opportunity to protest, and worse, how many of these ‘extremely popular’ ratings systems use rating schemes similar to CyberPatrol’s.

It appears that not just Pagan sites are blacklisted by these ratings systems, but a whole range of other sites that are also on the fringes of mainstream society–and even ones that aren’t. For example, the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, which exists to “help [people] understand many different religions, list religious/spiritual/ethical news, [and] expose religious hatred and misinformation”, was banned by CyberPatrol as well. The organization mentions this fact on its web page (http://www.religioustolerance.org/), commenting that “[t]his site was banned [by CyberPatrol] in Boston libraries and schools… We don’t quite know why, and never did get an explanation from CyberPatrol who produced the WWW censoring software”. They number the Neo-Pagan sites that are banned as “countless”. Particularly frightening is the fact that no one but CyberPatrol knows the full list of banned sites; Microsystems allows one to test specific page addresses, but that’s it. Also scary is that a number of online services, including the “big three” of America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy, are automatically bundling CyberPatrol with their other software. Even more frightening than CyberPatrol’s rating system is that of CYBERsitter, which claims to only ban sites focusing on “topics such as adult or sexual issues, illegal activities, bigotry, racism, drugs, or pornography” but actually does so to many more, including anything with the phrases ‘gay rights’, ‘safe sex’, and ‘violence’. There is no appeal process, and individuals who have written critically of Solid Oak Software for the product have in turn been sued by the company (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance).

In addition to third-party ratings systems, Internet authors also may rate their own pages using any of a number of rating services’ standards. The W3 Consortium, the group responsible for coordinating and standardizing the development of the World Wide Web, has proposed one a protocol for utilizing these self-rating systems, named PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection). Joan Connell of MSNBC comments that, “Labeling services use a protocol known as PICS… to rate sites for sex, nudity, obscenity or violence…. Call it software with a conscience. Morality in a box. But whose morality is it?” (1997). The answer is: Everyone’s. Under PICS, individual web page authors select rating service vocabularies for use in rating their own page content. In theory, PICS is the ideal solution because it would negate the need for explicit government- or industry-impelled censorship and place such power in the hands of the authoring citizens. However, the authors of the Internet Parental Control FAQ write that the author-rating system is “not a workable one, since even well-intentioned content authors will have difficulty rating their material in a manner that agree[s] with [one’s] values as a parent. In addition, malicious authors are under no pressure to rate their content correctly if at all” (Safdar & Cherry).

Centralizing the rating process by mandating self-rating of Internet content according to one rating service’s criteria is a virtual Pandora’s Box of problems. Imagine if every Pagan who authored a web page were required by law to submit it to CyberPatrol for rating–and then hand out that rating to every Internet visitor who stopped by, regardless of how accurate the rating actually was. Yet there are people who are lobbying for exactly this sort of legislation as you read this, claiming that it is simply an Internet version of the American motion picture ratings and just as necessary to protect people (especially children) from ‘unacceptable’ content. Like the serpent Ouroborous, we are come full circle once again to the question of who determines what is unacceptable.

What You Can Do

If all of America agreed that Pagan religions were immoral and not to be tolerated, one might consider it reasonable (at least in theory) for American law to reflect this and consequently protect American citizens from such an immoral force. But the reality is that this is far from the truth; even if the majority of America were to hold such a belief, American democracy has never been about unilaterally enforcing majority rule. It has instead been about trying to accommodate the varying needs of a mammoth society in which people of all kinds are certain to disagree, about trying to make everyone happy and protecting everyone’s rights in the process. While we as Pagans may be able for the large part to speak out against large corporations promoting censorship practices we don’t agree with (by simply choosing not to give them patronage), we also need to carefully examine the role our government is playing in the communications legislation of today and the future. The FCC’s “Digital Tornado” paper may be described as a ‘halcyon version of the future’ because it espouses a version in which government plays a minimal regulatory role, but we cannot naïvely relax and assume that it is the version of the future which will come to pass (Jarvis). Steven D. Hinckley, Professor in the University of Richmond School of Law, states that “[v]irtually every major technological communications breakthrough has been subjected to the same kind of review in its earliest days, and the resulting track-record gives advocates of minimal governmental interference in cyberspace significant cause for concern”.

With strong pressures from many citizen groups, as well as historical legal precedents to draw upon, I predict that the government is not likely to maintain a strictly non-interference position for long. Paganism has traditionally been both loosely-defined and somewhat fractious, but if we are to ensure that the government’s position and legislation do not marginalize, silence, and eliminate us from the emerging ‘cyberspace’, we must act collectively and decisively to prevent it from occurring. Multinational telecommunications corporations aren’t going to concern themselves with anything other than profit; we cannot expect them to protect the interests of us or citizens in general any more than we could expect the wheel of the year to suddenly stop turning. Instead, as citizens we must speak with unified voices and make the governing bodies that are putting up the road signs on the Information Superhighway hear us. We must turn our attention to organizations that regularly watch this road construction, such as the Voters Telecommunications Watch (www.vtw.org) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), and create forums in our own sacred spaces to spread information about the safety of our virtual spaces. Above all, we must act. Virtual discrimination and censorship are no less threats than their real-world counterparts, and we must act against them with the same fervor and force. We must send faxes, phone calls, e-mails, and letters until we have established not only the right to build and possess our own sacred cyberspaces, but also the right to share them without the zealots of ‘appropriateness’ instituting a Virtual Burning Times upon us.

Works Cited

1. 104th Congress. S.314 (Communications Decency Act of 1995). http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d104:s.314:, 1995.

2. Benjamin R. Barber. Jihad vs. McWorld. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

3. Branwen. Wicca. http://www.cris.com/~goddess/wicca.html, 1997.

4. Center for Democracy and Technology. CDT’s Analysis of the Latest Communications Decency Act. http://www.cdt.org/policy/freespeech/12_21.cdaanal.html, 1996.

5. Joan Connell. Filtering software creates new dilemmas. http://www.msnbc.com/news/70518.asp, 1997.

6. Seth Finkelstein. “Re: CyberPatrol Blocks alt.feminism in Boston Libraries!!”, posted in alt.journalism et al. on April 20, 1997.

7. Michael S. Gottlieb. A Primer for New ISPs Regarding CyberLaw Issues. http://www.triadntr.net/~gottlieb/isp-netreg.htm, 1997.

8. Steven D. Hinckley. The First Amendment in Cyberspace: Background and Historical Perspectives. http://lcweb.loc.gov/nac/nac30/hinck1.html, 1997.

9. Diana Jarvis, Counsel for the VTW Center for Internet Education. Summary and Comments on Digital Tornado: An FCC Working Paper on Internet Regulation. http://www.vtw.org/archive/00970419_150200.shtml, 1997.

10. Audrie Krause. Selling Cyberspace: The Commercialization of the Internet. http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/feature/feature1/krause.html, 1997.

11. Microsystems Software, Inc. Microsystems Software offers search engine to check if Web sites are blocked by Cyber Patrol. http://www.microsys.com/pr97/cnot397.htm, 1997.

12. Millsaps College Computer Services. The Internet. http://www.millsaps.edu/www/compserv/briefs/internet/, 1996.

13. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Religious Tolerance, Ontario Consultants On. http://www.religioustolerance.org/, 1997.

14. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Religious Tolerance, Ontario Consultants On. http://www.religioustolerance.org/cyberpat.htm, 1997.

15. Paul Resnick. The CDA’s Silver Lining. http://wwww.wired.com/wired/4.08/idees.fortes/silver.html, 1996.

16. Shabbir J. Safdar & Steven Cherry, Voters Telecommunications Watch. Internet Parental Control Frequently Asked Questions. http://www.vtw.org/pubs/ipcfaq, 1996.

17. Bruce Sterling. “A Short History of the Internet”. http://www.op.net/docs/inet-refs/internet-history.txt, 1993.

18. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Judges Sloviter, Buckwalter and Dalzell. Adjudication on Motions for Preliminary Injunction. http://ig.cs.tu-berlin.de/RS/ETC/960611.ACLU-V-RENO-decision, 1996.

19. Jeannette K. Waldie. Pagan Family Consumer Alert. http://lonestar.texas.net/~lhiannon/cyberp.html, 1997.

20. J. Weiner. Cyber Promotions Inc. v. America Online Inc. C.A. NO. 96-2486, America Online Inc. v. Cyber Promotions Inc. C.A. NO. 96-5213; Memorandum Opinion And Order. http://www.leepfrog.com/E-Law/Cases/Cyber_Promo_v_AOL.html, 1997.

© 1997
Updated & © January 9th, 1998 by Anthony R. Thompson.


Also by Anthony R. Thompson: The Internet: Tool for Social Change or Stagnation?


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