A row has blown up over the use of webfiltering by Birmingham City Council, with the National Secular Society accusing the council of religious discrimination by allowing staff access to websites about mainstream religions, but blocking access to ones concerning atheism and less orthodox faiths, according to a BBC report.

Birmingham Council says it is "currently implementing new Internet monitoring software to make the control of Internet access easier to manage", which suggests that this is one of those inevitable problems that will pop up when you try to use technical solutions to fix social problems.

Despite the BBC story, Blue Coat won't confirm whether Birmingham council is a customer or not. But the company did confirm that, just like all the other webfiltering outfits, it divides webpages into groups - administrators can then choose which groups to allow and which to block.

The problem is that it lists organised religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism in one group, while relegating less mainstream - but recognised and perfectly legal - faiths such as Wicca and Paganism to an "Alternative Spirituality/Occult" group.

Rather oddly, it lists atheism both in the latter group and under Politics. And a company spokesperson couldn't explain what the difference is between "unconventional religious or quasireligious subjects" (listed under Religion) and " alternative religions" (listed as Alternative Spirituality/Occult).

Blue Coat points out that its database groupings have been around for several years now, and that it is open to input on what should be listed where. (I can't help wondering what would be the reaction of the US religious right if it listed Satanism as a religion alongside Christianity and Judaism, though.)

Be that as it may, if you have a situation where HR and IT don't talk, the IT department has to implement social controls that aren't really its responsibility, and then gets blamed for it when some HR muppet gives it the wrong instructions.

In summary, I'd say to Blue Coat that "Occult" is a dangerously loaded term, and you need to be much more careful about how you use it.

And to all the HR and IT professionals out there who have the job of developing and maintaining Internet access policies, think about why you're blocking anything. Would a warning pop-up ("Internet access is monitored. Are you sure this is business-related?") be less risky than a straightforward block in many cases?

Oh, and make sure you talk to each other about what is and isn't feasible, and what the legal and PR consequences could be of getting it wrong.