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By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
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By Ray Downs
Cyber-doors just keep slamming shut on Bill Taverner.
Last year he got an ominous warning from his broadband Internet provider. The admonition came after he sent an e-mail titled "Every sperm is sacred" to a group of priests and sex therapists discussing the Roman Catholic Church's historical views on masturbation.
Several hours later the ISP shot back a message that, Taverner recalls, basically said: "Do this again, and your account will be terminated."
Then, two months ago, Taverner was at a New Jersey middle school conducting a program on behalf of his employer, Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. When he tried logging on to Planned Parenthood's e-mail server, up popped a Web page saying his access was restricted "due to pro-choice content."
"Can you believe that?" asks Taverner. "To be fair, I tried a national pro-life site, and they blocked that, too. But then I tried www.iraqbodycount.org and had no trouble getting in there. So information about abortion on either side of the debate is off-limits, but information about a bloody war isn't!"
The last straw came three weeks ago when Taverner took a seat at a Panera Bread in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. He fired up his Dell laptop and began surfing the Web via the café's free wireless Internet. Working on a book about teenage sex, Taverner needed to consult the educational portal www.sexetc.org. But the Richmond Heights-based Panera Bread instantly blocked the site.
Confused, Taverner tried www.aasect .org, home of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, to which he belongs. No luck there either.
"My first thought was: 'This is wrong.' If you want to restrict access to Playboy or Hustler in a public café, I don't have a problem with that. Masturbation is for the home, you know. But I couldn't understand restricting access to legitimate, academic, factual information about sex education."
Taverner proceeded to call up the home page of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonprofit that promotes sexual rights. Inexplicably, that Web site worked.
"Our wireless Internet is a free service," explains Panera Bread spokesman Mark Crowley. "We view it as an enhancement of the environment that we're providing. At the same time, it comes with certain downfalls. It's not going to be the same level of access that someone has in the comfort of their home."
Wi-Fi, or wireless Internet service, has become just another amenity available for a fee at national chains such as Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, Borders and FedEx Kinko's, not to mention numerous hotels and airports. Many mom-and-pop shops and a growing number of cities host free Wi-Fi "hotspots." In fact, residents of and visitors to downtown St. Louis and Clayton can check their e-mail from a park bench without paying a penny.
But greater access often means tighter restrictions. Some Wi-Fi providers including Panera Bread, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and the city of St. Louis are using filtering software to block access to certain content.
"It's disturbing," says Marjorie Heins, coordinator of the Free Expression Policy Project at the New York University School of Law. "Internet filters are powerful censorship tools. Companies offering wireless Internet access are misleading their customers when they use these notoriously inaccurate and ideologically biased products to block thousands of valuable Web sites."
Filtering software is triggered the second an Internet user types search terms or a Web site address. The software identifies key words such as "dick," which correspond to a set of generalized topics like "sex," which the Wi-Fi provider wants censored.
The programs have found fans with corporate employers, for one, who can prohibit their workers from visiting shopping sites or perusing pornography on the clock. And filtering is mandated on computers in libraries and schools receiving federal funds. You can go to any branch of the St. Louis Public Library today, for instance, and log on to an informational Web site like that of Sex Addicts Anonymous but not a recreational portal, such as Playboy.com.
Still, free-speech advocates like Heins call filtering "devastatingly over-broad." She cites portals devoted to the Declaration of Independence, the Knights of Columbus and Shakespeare's complete works among those that filters have detected as containing sexual content.
"Most filtering-software companies supplement the key-word detection with a bit of review by employees. But they may only have a dozen employees, and you've got billions of Web sites most of them changing every day," Heins adds. "The examples of totally irrational blocking are in the tens of thousands."
Panera Bread offers free Wi-Fi at more than 760 franchisee- and company-owned cafés nationwide, and, according to spokesman Mark Crowley, most of them filter. After Bill Taverner discovered the restrictions at his local Panera, he penned an e-mail to colleagues via the AASECT listserv. The message ignited a firestorm of angry responses and a letter-writing campaign to Panera CEO Ronald Shaich.
Dennis Sarich, Panera Bread's customer-comment coordinator, informed Cannon in an e-mail response that Panera filters some content in order to "maintain the community tone and standards that Panera Bread is known for."