Ask Surly Amy: Blocked Atheist Websites

Ask Surly Amy

Hey Amy!

I tried to send my wife a link to the American Atheists website today via gmail chat and she was blocked from opening the url. The error message reads:

“Category: Alternative Spirituality/Belief Access to this website has been blocked for one of the following reasons: The website’s category has been filtered because content on the site may be in conflict with what the Company considers acceptable Internet use.”

Now I understand how companies have the right to block stuff, but what boils my blood is that websites that are christian based are NOT blocked such as the discovery institute, Other sites that ARE blocked are friendlyatheist and pharyngula.
It’s quite clear that they probably just block anything related to NON belief in a sky daddy. Is there anything I can do? I want to send a letter or an email but I’m not sure If I’d just be shoveling water up hill.



Dear Chad,

I’d love to be all, GRRRR RAWRR! Let’s get those religious bastards for blocking our atheist websites! Man the troops atheist foot soldiers! Attack!

But unfortunately, I clearly get the impression that you sent this information to your wife while she was at work. And yes, you hit the nail on the head when you stated that companies have a right to block whatever website they desire. If you try to make a stink about it your wife’s employer will have to ask, why are you gmail chatting with your husband and not working? And I would have to agree. If it was your internet provider that you were paying for and they blocked atheist websites and not religious based sites then we would have a freedom of speech issue and I would join you in your outrage and help you with a work-around but the workplace is an entirely different story. Companies have a right to set a precedence in the workplace and they can block anything from P.Z. Myers to Wikileaks.

So I’m terribly sorry, but it seems you have no real valid recourse. Your wife will have to eventually seek employment elsewhere or simply resign to getting her free-thought information fix after work. That, or you can just send her the links on her smartphone and she can read on her breaks. Not even the biggest of corporations can ever completely stop the flow of information. If Wikileaks has taught us anything, it’s that. ;)

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I respectfully (sort of) disagree. Does Chad’s wife’s company have “break” policies? Do these break policies specifically state no personal use of the internet? Generally, prayer-type activities are acceptable during an employee’s break, whether that be kneeling on a rug or visiting a website that reaffirms your personal faith. Particularly if Christian websites are not blocked, this situation would apparently fall under discrimination.

    If, on a break, an employee would like time for personal reflection, perhaps by visiting a website that reaffirms their faith in reality, humanity, and why-the-hell-am-I-killing-myself-for-this-damn-job, it should be permitted.

    Likewise, unless there is a written policy, communicating with a spouse is generally acceptable on break time.

    Whether Chad and his wife really want to take on this gigantic can of worms is another story, but I do think he’s right to speak up. If nothing else, ALL religious/belief websites should be blocked if they’re going to block non-theist sites.

  2. I agree with Amy, you have no recourse if your wife is using company computers.

    I did, however, want to get out ahaed of all the comments that will spout the Puritan Work Ethic as the only way things should be done. There will be those who will automatically assume that your wife was slacking off and doing her surfing on company time (Amy seems to have done this) and not during a break or lunch. If you will notice the case was not stated in either direction. It’s not surprising since it has been beat into us from an early age that if you work hard and do the right things all will go your way and that anything that holds up commerce at either end is evil.

    It’s a good thing to work (and to work hard) but it boggles my mind that even some of my liberal friends are saying those who are on unemployment are lazy or too picky about what job to take, or that unions are the reason things cost so much and/or causes unemployment, or that employers should be able to fire you with little to no justification.

    All complete purtanical horseshit that has been fed to us by the conservitives that currently dominate economics. The conservatives in this country hate when anyone get something they didn’t earn. Unless it’s inherited…
    or from a tax cut…
    or a kick back.
    I suspect some would be happy to see the return of debtor’s prisons.

    I am not saying that unions are the solution to all our problems, they tend to become corrupt and/or toothless over time, but the automatic gainsaying that goes on really upsets me. If it weren’t for unions there would be no 40 hour workweek, overtime, vacations, child labor laws (children were too much compitition), OHSA, and the list goes on to end with the middle class itself. The rich (most of them, anyway) in this country hate that the middle class even exists, they would prefer a unenducated, beholden, workforce that would sing the praises of company over individuals. The Tea Party is making this happen in a polital sense, by the way.

    Sorry, I am feel particulary ranty today.

    Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

  3. Assuming this is in the US, I’m going to agree with Amy.

    @MinorGroove communicating with your spouse on break-time and doing so on company issued equipment and resources are not the same thing. If they have filters I would be shocked if they don’t have an electronic usage policy of some sort. Unless her job/career was being impacted by her Atheism, I fail to see the disparate treatment here that would meet a reasonable criteria for discrimination. The company can not take adverse action against her based on her protected beliefs, they are however not obligated to provide the resources for her to pursue them.

  4. @coreyjf: This is an arguable point, and very much dependent on the workplace. Because many workplaces *are* required to give some degree of religious dispensation (i.e. room and time for prayer rugs), and because the christian sites Chad mentions are specifically NOT blocked, this suggests that it is allowable for employees to access those sites (presumably on break time, and presumably using company resources) and therefore pursue some form of religious observation during the work day.

    This is the point I would argue. It’s not about what is ok on company time per se, it’s about why those other sites are *not* blocked. Perhaps the company simply needs some clarification as to what is acceptable and when. If Chad’s wife does bring this to their attention, perhaps it is more appropriate for the company to block any site with religious/spiritual affiliation.

    As I said, can of worms and all, but I feel it’s our responsibility to at least try to level the playing field.

  5. I would highly advise not kicking the hornet’s nest on this one. Obviously the higher-ups are Christians, and if an atheist starts complaining, guess who is going to be the first to be let go on the next downsizing or scrutinized extra hard in the future?

    Not saying it’s fair, but it’s the way the world works.

  6. @MinorGroove: It depends on if the time/room constitutes an unreasonable burden. The bigger issue here however is Atheism is appropriately not a religion. There is case law that requires sincerity of belief to be considered a accommodation in the first place. If you are coming at if from an accommodation standpoint, that her accessing these site would be required within the confines of her religious practice.

  7. @coreyjf: I see your point there.

    @Eryops: There are certainly times and places when nests of hornets ought be avoided, but conversely, times and places when those nests must be thoroughly walloped. I’m not sure we have enough info in this case to categorize the situation, but I stand by the need to let our voices be heard when it is at all possible.

  8. I hate net filters in general, but perhaps the it guy in charge of the internet filter simply isn’t familiar with the websites the writer went to. There are countless sites for every religion imaginable, it would be impossible to filter them all. Perhaps some christian found a couple of their favorite sites, and decided to give the sysadmin a list of atheist sites that they felt should be blocked as well. Either way it’s irrelevant, a private business can block whatever websites they want.

  9. “Category: Alternative Spirituality/Belief Access to this website has been blocked for one of the following reasons: The website’s category has been filtered because content on the site may be in conflict with what the Company considers acceptable Internet use.”

    I recognize this wording. It’s from a product called SurfControl, which is currently owned by the company Websense. SurfControl has a central category database to control website access. Clients can use rules to override the categories but most just use SurfControl’s default data. (Pretty sure this is how it works.) Chances are Chad’s wife’s company isn’t even aware of which sites are blocked or open.

    On the other hand, since Websense controls the database, it might be worthwhile for Chad and a few thousand of his closest friends to politely ask them to re-categorize some of these sites. It won’t affect client-specific rules but it’ll help for the majority of clients who use the default categories.

  10. @mrmisconception:

    I agree with your entire post.


    Not saying it’s fair, but it’s the way the world works.

    Only because we allow it to work in that fashion. The sooner we stand up to puritanical, uber-capitalistic horsefeathers, and all the other general bags of nonsense so many folks accept, the sooner we can actually get a little closer to saying While not yet perfect, it’s reasonably fair; it’s the way the world works.

  11. Whatever takes place should be solely between the wife and her employer. There is no reason for Chad to get involved and it would probably make things worse. After all, they’re just blocking websites, not proselytizing, I would hope. If she is seriously concerned about it, she should talk to someone there herself (assuming that’s feasible). If she isn’t, then the OP should let this one go.

  12. I think the big problem here is that we’re all speculating on Chad’s wife’s company’s internet usage policy.

    I’ve worked for a few different large firms plus the Ontario/Canadian gov’t…generally speaking the policy is that if you’re on break, lunch, etc. you can use the internet for personal use, as long as you don’t visit inappropriate sites.

    So, first, chances are that Chad’s wife *is* allowed to use the internet for personal use, as long as it’s on a break.

    What are “inappropriate sites”? Tough call – one company I worked for used a filtering software and the general consensus was that if you could get to it, it must be okay. Another company I worked for had a policy that if you were okay with your name being tacked on the company lunchroom wall with a list of the sites you’ve visited, that was a good rule of thumb. Chad’s wife needs to know her company’s policy before she gets all complainy.

    I agree with Steve D., this is likely the default list – most companys that use large scale filtering software use the default list. But, every company I’ve worked at that’s used similar software has the ability to edit the list. Chances are if Chad’s wife finds that Atheist websites should be acceptable within her company’s policies, all she has to do is request they be un-blocked.

    And if they’re *not* acceptable within the company policies, quite frankly, I believe she has a right to ask why.

  13. I don’t know how Websense update their lists, but I remember some odd filterings when I worked for a company that used them.

    By all means complain that their lists are not perfect, but don’t be surprised if the result are more blocked sites and not fewer.

  14. May be a case of squeaky wheels getting the oil… Some Christians got all high-n-mighty over their websites being blocked, complained, and got them unblocked. And nobody’s complained about PZ being blocked yet, so he’s never been unblocked.

  15. You know, not everybody who uses the internet at work for leisure is ‘badwrong.’ At my last job I was doing quality control work for a juice factory and even if the tests I had to do were important, they only had to be done once an hour and only took a few minutes. Most of the time I was on the internet, and my boss both knew this and didn’t care. So, yeah, I could be talking to one of my significant others through gmail and it wasn’t a problem.

    I think this is more about how there is a clear double standard with the company and it is religious discrimination. Religious discrimination is a bad thing, right?

  16. She should sign into gmail using the https protocol. This will prevent any network firewalls from parsing her emails/texts. You can even make this your default sign-in option.

    Edit: Oh, but I guess it was the link that was blocked. Technology fail.

  17. @astro_boy:

    Your advice has two problems. First, circumventing the proxies may present policy problems — it’s generally prohibited. Secondly, it might not work: more and more companies are doing SSL interception, which can inspect https traffic.

  18. I see several people saying that you’re out of luck on company computers. That’s only partly true. *Up to a point*, the company can do whatever it wants with its equipment and network.

    However, discrimination against employees based on religion, race, or sex is still unlawful. Blocking *all* religious websites would probably be acceptable, but blocking some while allowing others might be considered unreasonable discrimination.

    Unfortunately, pushing the issue is likely to get the company to ban all religious sites, and quietly let people know it’s your fault. Not something I’d recommend.

  19. @Sunioc:
    There are countless sites for every religion imaginable, it would be impossible to filter them all. Perhaps some christian found a couple of their favorite sites, and decided to give the sysadmin a list of atheist sites that they felt should be blocked as well.

    No sysadmin is going to occupy themselves with manually blocking or unblocking websites. Like you said, there’s just too many of them. You just buy the filtering-software, which auto-updates its categories daily, weekly, hourly, whatever, from the servers of the software manufacturer (Websense being a popular one, which @Steve D already pointed out).

    You then decide what kind of stuff you don’t think your employees should be surfing for during work (or break) time, like porn or hate sites, or bandwith hoggers like audio- and video streaming, Virus risks like software downloads, etc…

    And that’s it.
    Unlike what you might think, your sysadmin probably doesn’t really care what’s on your computer (content-wise anyway) or which sites you go to. But at the same time you should follow the rule mentioned by @Zoltan earlier and figure that if you wouldn’t want people to know you looked at it, you probably shouldn’t look at it while at work.

    However, if, as the filtering software’s notification says, “spirituality” is one of the categories being blocked, and a bunch of christian sites aren’t, then either the manufacturer has got some serious categorisation issues (unlikely), or the employer or sysadmin has manually unblocked the sites. In the second case, that means you should be able to request non-religious sites be made accessible too. Although my best guess is that someone in upper management requested those specific x-tian sites be made available. So proceed at your own risk. Consider the sysadmin to be the most reliably neutral and best informed party in this case …

  20. @autotroph: Atheism isn’t a religion so there is no discrimination for blocking the site, anymore than their would be if they choose to block facebook, twitter, or

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