Feminist site blacklisted in schools

Feminist site blacklisted in schools

Feminist website Mookchick Online questioned educational web filters when hotlisted in US and UK schools and libraries for supposed occult and pronographic content.

In an effort to combat peer pressure, school bullying and newer forms of gender-related bullying like slut shaming, Mookychick.co.uk was launched in 2005 as a feminist website dedicated to highlighting resources for the free-thinking female social outsider. Aiming to find common ground within social labels like Goth, Emo and Geek, Mookychick attracted a word of mouth following and now has over 5,000 forum members and 7,000 Facebook fans, with over 100,000 global visitors every month.

Mookychick’s members have a fierce loyalty to the site and the forum’s anonymous Secret Survey – with over 7,000 entries – is filled with testimonials from young women regarding the marked improvement that the site has made to their social confidence.

When visitors were asked what they thought the best thing about Mookychick was, the answers tended to focus on its policy of acceptance and spirit of intelligent enquiry. One survey member spoke of it as a site where “people who might normally be classified as “outcasts” by modern society can join together and have intelligent, opinionated, prejudice-free conversations about life, the universe, and everything. It’s a place to learn without being judged.”

“I feel less like a freak on this site,” said another anonymous survey member. “I like the acceptance of difference as if it is nothing remarkable”. Yet another member described the site as an “oasis of knowledge, uniqueness and acceptance, that doesn’t discriminate or reject.”

Photo: Hope for the Sold

The general theme was that “there seems to be a positive atmosphere for women, where they are free to express themselves, something that is missing from much of the internet as a whole.”

In 2010, site co-founder and editor Magda Knight received a flood of queries from members no longer able to access the site at their schools, colleges and libraries. The site had been filtered as either “occult” or “pronography”, depending on the web filters applied.

Magda’s response: “I appreciate why web filters are in place, but when filters mindlessly look for keyword terms rather than applying context through manual filtering, you end up with a lot of useful educational resources falling through the gap. One member told me she couldn’t even search for Charles Dickens at her school on account of the implied sauciness of his name. I’m puzzled as to why we were filtered as “occult”, since Mookychick only briefly touches on faith, and portrays all faiths – from Paganism to Christianity – in a positive light. It’s as hard to be an alternative Christian or Muslim as it is to be a Pagan or Atheist. However, I’m more concerned about being filtered as “pronography”. And yes, I do know how to spell it. We’re an honest and informative resource for women. We talk about coping with anorexia and how to support friends with suicidal thoughts. We talk about body standards. We talk about the things that should currently be discussed in schools and we do it in an inclusive, respectful and safe environment. That’s why we’ve made such an impact – and why we should be available to students. Unfortunately we’ve been blacklisted from the places where people may need us the most – namely schools and colleges.”

Following feedback from site members, Mookychick Online began a successful campaign of contacting web filters in April 2012 to set about changing the categorizations.

“Everyone was very courteous and helpful,” said Magda. “Websense considered our content and re-classified it as Society and Culture within a day of our contacting them. Netsweeper recategorized us from Occult to Entertainment. A Netsweeper representative told me “we rely on such feedback from our customers to improve the accuracy of our categorization”. They wanted to hear from us as much as we wanted to hear from them.”

Mookychick’s ending is a happy one, but this does perhaps raise a question of whether the use of web filters does more harm than good. According to the Open Net initiative, in 2011 Netsweeper has provided services for telecommunications companies in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In those countries it has blocked websites related to LGBT, sex education and human-rights advocacy, as well as some newspapers and blogs and proxy websites that allow Internet users to browse anonymously, according to testing conducted by Open Net.

With filters becoming increasingly common, it’s potentially a short hop from protecting the interests of students to violating human rights. Something to consider in the Age of Information.