Manhattanites looking to read up on sexuality or reproductive issues online while eating at Au Bon Pain are out of luck thanks to the company’s WiFi restrictions.
The sandwich chain’s patrons attempting to access websites for LGBT rights advocacy groups, such as glaad.org, got an error message saying the site was blocked, DNAinfo reporters discovered. Error messages also popped up when trying to load sites pertaining to abortion — no matter the politics — or women’s issues.
Maureen Shaw, the founder of Sherights.com, learned Monday that users couldn’t access the blog, saying it was classified as “pornography.” She called on Au Bon Pain to remedy the issue via Twitter. Au Bon Pain responded, apologizing, “We’re not perfect, but will do our best to limit filtering as much as we can,” according to the chain’s Twitter. “We take this very seriously and want to remedy it best we can.”
But the Twitter battle raged on Tuesday. Au Bon Pain claimed the restrictions were an isolated incident and Sherights.com said it was more than that. This is the latest in a trend where organizations use overly broad filter settings in an effort to block pornographic sexual content, but end up restricting innocuous educational, news and political sites that discuss LGBT issues, sexuality and reproductive health. In 2011, Amtrak ran into the same issue and riders were blocked from viewing LGBT sites through its WiFi. The same debate is happening in various school districts where access is restricted even as a learning tool.
But LGBT and other site restrictions could gain momentum as a result of a recent federal court decision on net neutrality, which kept internet providers from treating sites differently. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit scrapped two major rules the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set up to prevent access discrimination on the internet. Now internet service providers, or ISPs, can make websites pay for prioritized access for certain sites, diverting traffic away from others, including startups and blogs.
Au Bon Pain apologized to customers Thursday after reports that it’s New York stores were blocking LGBT and abortion-related websites.
Reports of restricted access started earlier this week after patrons using the sandwich cafe’s WiFi received an error message saying, “This website is not allowed. This website is categorized as Sexual Orientation and is blocked as part of this network’s web content filtering policy.”
The chain said the blockage was caused by its WiFi provider’s “third-party filter software” setting. That setting was “intended to ensure the comfort and safety of our guests by keeping truly objectionable content inaccessible,” Au Bon Pain wrote in a statement Thursday.
Au Bon Pain said it was unaware of the filter blocked “access to reputable websites” and has since disabled it.
“Au Bon Pain did not intend to block reputable sites regarding any LGBT issues, family planning, or any other topics or communities to our guests using Wi-Fi in our cafés. We were unaware the filtering software our Wi-Fi provider uses would block any sites…It was never our intent to deliberately block any internet site from our guests.”