06/04/2010 12:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blocked Content Puts Focus on Corporate Power

Call it a case of Googling while gay. In late February, Khadija Tribble brought her appetite and her laptop into a Denny's restaurant in northeast Washington, D.C. As she had in past visits, she took a seat, placed an order, and, like other patrons, logged into the diner's Wi-Fi network.

But what Tribble encountered in the ensuing Web search was a barrier that points to the scope of corporate authority in modern life and holes in corporations' accountability under current law.


Two months before the explosion and deaths on the Gulf drilling platform and the BP oil-spill fiasco, Tribble's case cast a revealing light on the reliance that Americans place on corporations to operate in the public interest. It also exposes the gulf between those expectations and safeguards in regulation, much less actual corporate behavior.

Tribble launched a Web search to see how local businesses were preparing for the onset of same-sex weddings, then just two weeks from beginning under the city's marriage-equality ordinance that took effect in early March. But because her search results contained the words "gay" and "lesbian," Tribble couldn't click through to any listing. Attempting to do so, she simply got an error message, telling her the information was blocked.

Because she is an activist and a parent who embraces "teachable moments," as she says, Tribble didn't shrink from the challenge. "This happens to be affecting a community that I identify with, " says the 38-year-old District resident, who with her female partner is a mother of four. She talked to a manager and later phoned Denny's corporate offices.

She heard back quickly, from both the customer relations and the legal departments. In keeping with the restaurant chain's goal of being a family-friendly establishment, Denny's contracted with a firm that filters its Wi-Fi service. Their screening system, she learned, had "ranked" words such as gay and lesbian, calling them "high-priority" terms for filtering. That is, access to Web pages containing them would be barred.

To its credit, Denny's didn't stop at a pat description of its policy. In less than two weeks, they alerted Tribble they had sought to solve the crux of the problem by changing the filter and allowing access to Web sites containing basic words by which at least 1 in 20 Americans identify themselves and their families: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. According to the Washington news publication MetroWeekly, Denny's outside public relations firm acknowledged that the key words "brought to our attention should not be blocked by our Wi-Fi provider."

But is changing the criteria of filters -- or being nicely responsive in this instance to a consumer complaint -- really the crux of the problem? Media corporations providing wireless networking and text messaging are exempt from provisions of the 76-year-old Federal Communications Act mandating no discrimination in the content they carry.

Without basic safeguards in law, corporations can and do curb the content of what some Americans send and receive. They can apply filters that have nothing to do with obscenity or profanity. In 2007, Verizon Wireless barred NARAL Pro-Choice America from using its network for an advocacy campaign around overseas family planning policy aimed at mobile phone users. While other wireless providers did carry the program, Verizon Wireless at first balked, citing "controversial and unsavory" content, before publicly backing down.

Just this year, Catholic Relief Services faced a similar rejection by Sprint for a text campaign aimed at cell-phone users to raise money for earthquake relief in Haiti. Public Knowledge, which advocates for ordinary Americans' rights in digital culture, has flagged the case as emblematic of a glaring void in federal law.

"More and more people have a basic expectation of freedom of access," says Harold Feld, legal director at Public Knowledge. "Unlike on your cell phone or your land line, you cannot count on any rules of the road when using a wireless network. The same applies to texting."

Being at the mercy of the market means that those who face rejection or disconnection, or, like Tribble, blocked access to particular content, must speak up or raise a stink to gain redress. Yet without the law as a means of recourse, advocates often have to fall back on media corporations themselves as a means of telling their story and mobilizing public outrage to coax a change in policy.

Dependence on the good graces of corporations is a fickle and very flimsy basis from which to create a level playing field for ordinary Americans or a more perfect union. Media corporations, even when possessed of a social conscience or poised to follow simple fairness, can face countervailing pressure from sub-contractors, shareholders, or political figures to thwart the public interest.

Without law, and its steady application and enforcement, the public interest can become a quaint notion shorn of its moral, intellectual, or practical power. Even worse, corporations can warp it to fit their prerogatives.

Some corporations are now fighting consumers to preserve their power to discriminate in the content they carry over wireless networks. Last fall, six senators actually filed an amendment to preempt federal protections for consumers in that area. Among that group are some of the very lawmakers pretending to chide BP for pre- and post-blowout failures in the Gulf now that waterborne tar balls are making landfall, even as they vied in recent weeks to shield drillers from cleanup costs.

Government, of course, is not immune from undue suasion by the powerful so as to ignore the popular will or the common good. In 2003 and 2004, thousands of citizens trouped to hearings where, all but uncontested, they opposed federal rules granting greater concentration of media ownership that a pro-corporate majority at the Federal Communications Commission went on to rubber stamp.

Now a new day has dawned at the FCC. The bipartisan, grassroots movement that rose up in 2003 is stirring again around broadband access and consumer safeguards in wireless networks.

Reflecting on her case, Khadija Tribble says, "This could happen to anyone. I just happened to challenge it." Why? She invokes MLK. "Any threat to justice hurts all of us. That is, until we overcome it." Hers is a bold reminder that the most powerful interest of all in this republic remains a diverse coalition of people fueled by conscience, facts, and perseverance in making their voice heard.