UPDATE: 9 MARCH 2012 – In August of 2011 Xtra published a story about how internet users were prevented from accessing gay news sites via the passenger wi-fi service at the Ottawa airport. Read it here. The story details how we re-visited the Porter lounge at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport then, and found no websites, gay or otherwise, were blocked from access via public wi-fi.
25 SEPTEMBER 2008 - Porter Airlines is censoring access to gay and lesbian websites on its passenger courtesy computers.
The airline — which operates out of the Toronto Island airport — offers free computer and internet access in its passenger lounge. However passengers using the computers are unable to access sites with queer content, including Xtra.ca, or to search for sites using phrases like "gay Pride."
"I was surprised that Porter would set those blocks," says Lynn Pyke, a Toronto corporate manager. "Intentional or not it's homophobic. Lots of gays and lesbians and not homophobic people are flying Porter."
Pyke was flying Porter to Ottawa on Aug 15 when her flight was delayed by weather.
"There's no bar," she says. "I was looking for something to do. I knew that Ottawa Pride was the next week. I googled something as simple as 'lesbian Pride event Ottawa.' It wouldn't even conduct the search."
Attempts by Xtra on Sep 22 to conduct similar searches met with the same result on one computer, although another computer offered no restrictions. The one computer was unable to access Xtra.ca, Squirt.org (a cruising website run by Pink Triangle Press — the publisher of Xtra — which also allows users to access gay porn) or to search for "gay Pride."
A wireless laptop was able to access all sites.
Brad Cicero, Porter's manager of communications and public affairs, says the censorship is unintentional.
"I hope people understand there's no attempt to prevent access to any reasonable content," he says. "There's certainly no intention to block out a certain segment of sites: gay, lesbian or otherwise."
Cicero says Porter is using the parental controls that come built into its Mac computers.
"We have to turn them on so we have some level of security but it's at a higher setting than we would like."
Cicero says he's heard complaints about people unable to access social networking sites or daily newspapers. He says Porter wants to institute a system it can control itself, although he couldn't specify what settings would be used.
"They're working on this now," he says. "We're looking to have the security level at a network level rather than a device setting. They've been discussing it for a little while."
Nart Villeneuve, a research fellow at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab — which has done work with Chinese bloggers and dissidents on how to avoid internet censorship — says parental controls often automatically censor gay sites.
"Gay and lesbian is often classified as pornography even when there's zero porn on the site," he says. "There's often a lifestyle category that's a euphemism for gay and lesbian. These filtering products often have a very conservative bias. It's quite common in companies or where there's semi-public access."
Villeneuve says the makers of censorship programs rarely reveal the lists or terms they use. On Macs a user can't find what method Apple uses to decide what sites to censor via its parental controls.
Pyke says she's willing to accept that Porter was ignorant rather than deliberately homophobic.
"I would give them the benefit of the doubt that they don't know about it," she says.
But Dennis Findlay of CommunityAir, a Toronto group opposed to the island airport, says the censorship fits right in with Porter's approach.
"It's an indication of this company's attitude toward the world," he says. "Obviously one of their rules is that gays, lesbians and trans can't use our community to connect to theirs. What's [Porter] protecting them from? It's downright discrimination against any gay, lesbian or trans people who are flying the airline.
"I, as a gay man, am offended by the way in which the gay community is being nanny-netted. I've got a date set up with someone in Montreal and I want to confirm it. What's wrong with that? They're imposing their standards on another community."
Helen Kennedy, the executive director of national gay and lesbian lobby group Egale Canada, says she wonders if the censorship is a result of the airline's popularity with government workers.
"Most of the people who use Porter are bureaucrats," she says. "They don't want to offend government, is that it?"
Kennedy says that even accidental censorship of gay and lesbian sites is disturbing.
"Maybe it is a genuine mistake," she says, "but that's disgraceful. It's pretty interesting that... software would single out the words gay and lesbian."