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Birmingham City Council Blocks Atheist Sites

In their omnipresent wisdom Birmingham City Council have decided to block their staff from accessing websites dealing with Atheism and new age Neopagan religions. As an IT professional who has done policy work in this area from both sides of the issue I was intrigued by this story. Reading the BBC’s report left me with some questions to ask. So I did. This is an e-mail I have sent today to Birmingham City Council via their website.

I write with reference to the report on BBC News which says “A city council has blocked its staff from looking at websites about atheism.”

I am an IT professional of 13 years’ experience and I am disgusted at what appears to be a lazy and unprofessional appprach to the implementation of the “new internet monitoring software”.

It sounds very much to me like the people responsible for implementing whatever solution BCC has chosen have decided that they are going to stay with the categories and block lists provided by the software, thus disadvantaging those who do not believe in a God or those who follow a Pagan or Wiccan path.

Any good web monitoring and filtering product can be modified and customised to the needs of the implementers’ business and users and in line with the law of the land. They are not sold as off the shelf perfect implementations, the block lists and categories are only suggestions.

The impression I get here is that BCC are simply saying “we can’t be bothered learning about the software and how it can be modified so we’re sticking with the default categories and screw anyone who doesn’t like it.”

Who are BCC to judge Wicca as a “lesser” religious practice than any other accepted religion? How does this view fit in with the contraversial “religion” of Scientology? Is this deemed an “acceptable” religion? Who made such a judgement? The law of the land says BCC cannot make such a judgement.

As pointed out in the report, “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.”

The report says that “A city council statement said the authority had a “long-standing internet usage policy for staff”.

It added: “We are currently implementing new internet monitoring software to make the control of internet access easier to manage.

“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.”

If BCC are implementing a new monitoring product, have you informed employees that the mechanisms for monitoring will be changing? Have you informed employees who will heave access to monitoring and why? An employer and employee must have a relationship based on mutual trust. If monitoring mechanisms are changing then the employee has a right to know the reasons for it and how those mechanisms will now work.

I must also say that any manager who can spend time monitoring the internet activities of his or her staff is quite probably underutilised, such activity strikes me as a possible waste of Council Tax payers’ money.

As someone who has written and implemented corporate internet usage policies I should like to know more about this existing policy and whether it will be reviewed.

Who wrote this policy? When was the policy written? When was it last updated? When was the policy last reviewed by government auditors? Is the policy regularly reviewed by qualified legal advisors? Is this policy available for Council Tax payers to view for themselves?

Given the arguments of the National Secular Society I would suggest that the policy has either not been reviewed and cleared by qualified legal advisors or those who have reviewed it have failed BCC.

I would be grateful for a full response as I will be publishing this e-mail and the response in my weblog. The Council Tax payers of Birmingham (my family fall among that number) deserve an answer.

Any responses from Birmingham City Council will be posted here.

Update

My attention has been pointed towards Birmingham City Council’s Religion and Belief Equality Scheme.

Here’s a snippet from that web page:

The City Council has a long-standing commitment to equality. We have been active in identifying and acting on best practice. This scheme reinforces and deepens that commitment, recognising the unique and significant role that faith has in the life and cohesion of our diverse community. The City Council will:

• Promote harmony and understanding between different faith groups with the view of promoting community cohesion

• Challenge discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief

• Promote equality for employees and service users, regardless of their religion or belief

• Provide responsive and appropriate services for all sections of the community

• Create an environment free from harassment and victimisation for faith groups

• Improve communication, participation and engagement with faith groups

Hmm… now how does that fit in with blocking blocking staff from accessing websites dealing with Atheism and new age Neopagan religions?

I’ll tell you.

It doesn’t.

Published inInternetPolitics