Apparently the folks at Panera Bread don’t want you to take advantage of their free Wi Fi policy. The St.Louis-based bakery café chain, with over 220 locations around the country, has a pretty sweet set-up. They serve up tasty, freshly-baked breads, pastries, bagels and make decent sandwiches and soups, all reasonably priced in clean, well-lit shops with tables and booths where people can talk —and use their computers at no charge. (I haven’t figured out why their coffee is so weak –or why Starbucks has lousy baked goods, but I will leave that for a later time.)

In any case, you can’t exactly go wherever you want into cyberspace from the comfort of your Panera table. You see, Panera has a filtering system, the Sonic WALL, that categorizes what sites are acceptable and which ones are not. If you happen to take a little nibble of your cherry Danish before you type in, say, www.perezhilton.com, or, in this case, tinyurl.com, you will be greeted with this cheery message:

Panera Wifi Blocking

Apparently you can’t get your daily fill of Ashley (or “Asslee”) Simpson or Avril Lavigne bashing, or worse, some video clip of Amy Winehouse once again slugging a photog whilst in a heroin-induced stupor at the Perez Hilton site.

Panera Bread plainly doesn’t want you going there, because it decrees that this site is “Category 6: Adult or Mature Content”. What? Reading about what a tool Lindsay Lohan’s father is or following the pregnancy watch of Angelina Jolie in France is not allowed? What? Who decides what I can and cannot see? I could certainly understand not opening up some S&M sites or dominatrix videos at Panera so as not to offend the kiddies or grannies at the next table. But come on. Someone either at Panera (likely) or at Sonic Wall (more likely) is making these judgment calls based probably on what they deem to be socially or morally responsible.

But if that’s the case, why when I try other more “objectionable” sites than Perez Hilton, can I get in successfully? I’ve tried it –nah, I won’t mention which ones—and sure enough, I seem to get through OK. If anything, this proves that the filtering process is fallible or that it gets confused and assigns incorrect “scores” or categories that it deems inappropriate to Panera diners.

I actually found a list of sites that Sonic Wall found objectionable. Although I won’t list them here for obvious reasons, some of the sites are clearly “pornographic” and of “adult content”. (Whether much of Perez’s content is “adult” is debatable since it’s probably mostly infantile). Nevertheless, some of the sites are clearly liberal or anti-conservative and are mislabeled. The ACLU? Can’t get in?

I’m not surprised. OK, I get that bitchgirls.us doesn’t make the cut, but would someone tell me how blog.browndemocrats.org is considered “pornography”? It’s only a blog for Brown University students who call themselves Democrats. Oddly, there are no conservative sites on this partial list either. I can see how f*****company.com makes the list on its name alone, but it’s also a fairly well-known site where employees in the IT industry can go on and bitch about their own miserable, or about-to-be-killed firms. Is Panera scared of the word “f***”? OK, I’ll say it: fuck. OK, now it’s bye-bye to this website at Panera in the future!

Clearly, this whole practice seems to smack of censorship. I can certainly take my business elsewhere, and indeed it’s easier for me to go into the multitude of Starbucks and go on to my T-Mobile Hotspot account, but hey, it’s free at Panera. (And I have a soft spot for their Green Iced Teas.) Moreover, it is probably possible to for someone to remove this block through the use of a proxy, but that’s beside the point.

Why would a company go so far as to filter what its customers see or read, even if it’s in the relative privacy of their own table space. It’s not as if there is a single public access computer for customers, in which case the owner could make these kinds of stipulations. Either Panera wants to do the thinking for us and we just lie back and take it, or else we need to let people know this inconsistent practice still goes on. One could also imagine the fierce and catty anger that Perez Hilton and his millions of daily readers (upwards of 2 million) could be capable of if they got wind of this.

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