Soup, Sandwich and Censorship

"Questionable" material is filtered off the menu at Saint Louis Bread Co.

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."

Ryan Greis

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.

"It's outrageous," complains Denver resident Neil Cannon. "Apparently, at a Panera Bread it's OK to do a Google search for KKK but not for S-E-X."

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."

Sarich added: "About a year or so ago [a] veterinarian contacted us to complain about not being able to access a veterinary newsletter because SonicWall [Panera Bread's filtering software] was blocking it. No doubt the theory here was that it might contain something like animal surgery photos that could be uncomfortable for other customers to inadvertantly [sic] see while eating. Nonetheless, after a close examination by SonicWall, the newsletter was cleared for access."

Sarich encouraged Cannon and his colleagues to submit Web sites to SonicWall for reassessment.

Bill Taverner was one of the first to follow the instruction, only to learn that SonicWall's site characterizes www.aasect.org and www.sexetc.org as "sex education" content.

"They have it right," Taverner says. "So the assessment is not the problem. The censorship is."

AASECT member Marty Klein, a Palo Alto-based therapist and author of the e-newsletter Sexual Intelligence, suspects the problem is greater than most people realize. Several months ago Klein was at a FedEx Kinko's outlet working on his forthcoming book, America's War on Sex, when the company blocked him from accessing his own informational Web site, www.sexualintelligence.org.

Wonders Klein: "Who knows how many people had been denied access to my site without me knowing?"

After Klein complained, FedEx Kinko's agreed to open up his site, but the company refused to discuss "the bigger issue" of censorship with him, he says.

"The idea that the Internet has to be made 'safe' for adults who don't want to look at sexual content is a complete repudiation of American pluralism and democracy," Klein continues. "There're all these apocryphal stories about people going to a library and jacking off while looking at porn. That's crazy! Whoever is going to do that? If there are ten people who do that in a year, that's a lot."

A quick tour of local hotspots reveals a mixed bag when it comes to viewing sex-related Web sites.

Locally owned businesses, including Perc on the Park in Lafayette Square, Gelateria on Washington Avenue and Coffee Cartel in the Central West End, allow unfettered access to the 'Net, including www .hoes.com, where one gets a localized invitation that reads: "Girls From Saint Louis Want to Fuck You!"

The Riverfront Times couldn't access the 42-square-block Wi-Fi network in downtown St. Louis (it was being repaired), but a city spokesman confirms that the hotspot filters out pornography Web sites.

Federal law allows for open expression in "all-purpose public forums" like parks, notes Mark Sableman, a St. Louis attorney specializing in First Amendment issues. But there is no precedent on the books that classifies a municipal wireless network as a public forum.

AASECT executive director Stephen Conley expects his board to take action against Panera Bread by the time the group gathers in St. Louis next month for its 38th annual convention. One form of protest could include emptying AASECT's investment portfolio of Wi-Fi providers that censor.

Meanwhile, Linda Weiner, a St. Louis sex therapist, says she's joining other AASECT members in boycotting Panera Bread. "I go for business lunches and to get my bread fix," Weiner says. "But if we're not able to iron this out, it might definitely affect my willingness to eat there in the future."

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