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Thu, Mar 06, 2008

Websurfers At DEN Like Free Wi-Fi, But Deplore Censorship

Servers Block A Number Of 'Provocative' Sites

When Denver International Airport adopted free wireless Internet service last November, the move was met by-and-large with applause from passengers traveling through the Rocky Mountain hub... but some have criticized the airport's decidedly Big Brother-ish approach to determining what is "appropriate" content.

According to The Denver Post, those surfing on free Wi-Fi at DEN aren't allowed to view such sites as VanityFair.com, due to that magazine's often "provocative" content. Ditto such popular sites as gossip column perezhilton.com, or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition website.

Airport officials say they're simply erring on the side of caution, and note other family-friendly public places -- like libraries -- block objectionable web content, as well. But others say it amounts to the type of cyber-censorship one reads about from countries like China, or in the Middle East.

"Give people some credit. And the more credit you give them, the more they respond," said musician David Byrne, founder of the Talking Heads, on a blog post detailing his trip through DEN last month. He was blocked from logging onto the freeform news and features website boingboing.net. "It's just trusting people's discretion."

A commenter to the ISP Planet blog was more succinct. "Software designed for the prudery and rigidity of Sudan is determining user experiences in the United States," the poster wrote.

Airport spokesman Chuck Cannon said DEN opted to install the Webwasher filtering system when it converted from paid Wi-Fi service, to the free network last year. The decision came down to the question whether officials wanted to hear complaints from disgruntled parents, whose children may inadvertently view pornography... or from users opposed to the measure.

The family vote won out, and Cannon said the airport has only received two blocking complaints so far. The system in place at DEN also blocks anything displaying partial nudity... or even suggestive underwear ads.

Critics of such blocking at DEN note the apparent hypocrisy at work -- as hardcore pornography magazines like Hustler are still available for purchase from airport concession stands. They say discretion and public responsibility dictate to most people they shouldn't thumb through such magazines in a crowded concourse... nor should people log onto suggestive or offensive websites in public, whether they're paying for Internet access or not.

"This gets to the heart of what the Internet is all about and whose responsibility it is," said boingboing.net editor Xeni Jardin. "It seems particularly unfortunate that something as symbolic as the city's airport, a gateway to culture, commerce and the flow of ideas, would be blocked in such a fundamental way.

"The intent is understandable, but the outcome is bad for Denver," she added. "This manner of policing the Internet has been proven time and time again to be easily circumventable, with any number of means.

"So what it does is just block traffic to legitimate sites. Like the locks on your suitcase only keep the nice guys out," Jardin concluded.

FMI: www.flydenver.com, www.securecomputing.com

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