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Au Bon Pain Blames Wi-Fi Security Company for Blocking Gay, Abortion Sites

By Rosa Goldensohn | January 15, 2014 6:04pm | Updated on January 16, 2014 7:10am
 Au Bon Pain advertises free Wi-Fi for customers.
Au Bon Pain advertises free Wi-Fi for customers.
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DNAinfo/Rosa Goldensohn

MANHATTAN — Au Bon Pain officials blamed a Wi-Fi security company for blocking customers from viewing gay advocacy and family planning websites in their cafés, calling themselves "innocent bystanders."

The chain removed the filters Tuesday night after a DNAinfo New York report.

The company said Internet security giant Symantec unilaterally instituted the restrictions, which excluded sites categorized as “Abortion” or “Sexual Orientation.”  

“We’re just the innocent bystanders,” said an Au Bon Pain spokesperson. “Symantec changed its parameters and didn’t communicate it to their customers.” The company later apologized on Tumblr.

But Symantec said it does not control which websites are blocked at Au Bon Pain, beyond giving the company the option to block pornography and attempts to share files.

"We don’t have the visibility to see what filters were or weren’t in place," a spokeswoman wrote in an email Thursday night, adding that she believed the café chain worked with its Wi-Fi provider to create filters.

Wi-Fi users attempting to log on to the websites of the gay rights organization GLAAD, the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee and the reproductive rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America were met with messages saying the pages were “not allowed,” DNAinfo uncovered Tuesday.

A survey of six Au Bon Pain locations in Manhattan Wednesday showed that those sites are now accessible, although the homepage for Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, known as PFLAG, remained blocked.

Joshua Block, an attorney with the “Don’t Filter Me” campaign at the American Civil Liberties Union, said such blocks are part of common “family-friendly” Web filter settings.

“When people first hear about the issue, they think this is just an over-sensitive filter that just around the edges sometimes sweeps up non-sexual material,” Block said. “These categories by definition are established to identify LGBT-related sites that do not otherwise qualify as pornography.”

Block called Web security companies “the gatekeepers.”

“It’s bad enough that a company has a list of these as potential categories. It’s even worse to be providing guidance that steers them toward blocking," he said. "Ultimately, the change that really works is to eliminate the categories."

Maureen Shaw, of the formerly blocked site sherights.com, was impressed with Au Bon Pain's reaction. "This never should have happened in the first place, but I'm very excited that they not only acknowledged my concerns and others' concerns, but they acted quickly to rectify the situation."

But she said the incident is far from resolved. "It is now a larger question of whether or not other public Wi-Fi providers are enacting similar restrictions, either with or without establishments' knowledge of it."

Derrick Jones of National Right to Life said the flap was a rare occasion when his organization agreed with abortion rights advocates. “We would prefer it not be blocked. I’m sure NARAL would feel the same way,” he said. “But if we're both blocked, it's kind of a wash.”

Arman Dzidzovic contributed reporting.