Bil Browning

Amtrak: Our WiFi doesn't discriminate

Filed By Bil Browning | November 24, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Amtrak, censorship, The New Gay

When Zack Rosen from The New Gay rode the Amtrak Acela train from New York to DC after Halloween, he logged online and tried to access his blog only to be greeted by a popup window that said the site was blocked for "adult content." gay-train-266x200.jpgThe blog is not pornographic any more than we are; they're just, well, gay-focused.

Adult content? Granted we are hardly Dora The Explorer ('Clitora the Explora' might even be more accurate) but TNG takes pains to be accessible everywhere so that our readers can find us. Hence no porn, no sex ads and most of our graphic content comes in the form of words and not images. However, the dirty words are still there so I checked a comparable website to determine if we were being pigeonholed for being gay.

Turns out, we were! I was able to access Jezebel with no problems. Jezebel, the site that has the word "sex" in its tagline, and writes about the subject even more than I do. (Yes, it's possible.) So Amtrak is able to allow the aforementioend Jezebel, a site that discusses sex and bodies without edging into porn. So why not allow us?

It turns out that the folks at Amtrak saw Zack's post and Marketing Communications Specialist Mark Mastro, responsible for implementing the launch of Amtrak's wifi network, responded. Mastro is also an openly gay man.

Check out Mastro's response after the jump.

Rosen reports that Mastro left the following comment on the post:

Dear Zack,

I was notified of your recent blog regarding your experience on Acela Express and your attempts to access The New Gay. Normally, all communications to passengers come through our Customer Relations Department; however, in your case I have asked that I be able to contact you directly.

I am actually one of the team members directly responsible for the launch of AmtrakConnect Wi-Fi in-station and on-board Acela Express. I am responsible for not only the marketing you see, but also for the continued development of on-board content provided through our Wi-Fi.

As a company, we absolutely agree with you that The New Gay does not fall under the category of "adult content". I can tell you with absolute conviction this is not a site we set out to censor. Unfortunately, something is occurring with the automatic content filtering system we are using and we are attempting to determine why it is randomly blocking sites such as this. I can assure you many gay sites are not blocked, but regrettably some have fallen victim to the filter. When made aware of these situations, we have taken immediate action to unblock them, as has been done in the case of The New Gay. As of today, this site is now accessible. I will be going down to a trainset later this afternoon to confirm that my remote whitelisting has taken effect. To help resolve the problem longer term, we are in discussions with the outside company who supplied our content filter to see how they can help us to reduce the number of these occurrences as we move ahead.

You may find it reassuring that, as one of the main people responsible for onboard content filtering, I am myself a gay man who agrees we should not be unnecessarily censoring legitimate sites such as The New Gay. We appreciate your feedback, as it helps call attention to problems such as this so we can rectify the situation.

Regarding censorship, while in-station or on-board Acela Express we will continue to block access to true pornographic sites, whether heterosexual or homosexual, as this is a public network. I'm sure you can understand our need to block this level of content so that we can provide the best environment for all passengers. Many public Wi-Fi networks typically will do the same.

I sincerely hope with this further explanation, you will travel with Amtrak again. The issue you experienced is due to a technical glitch and not due to any social policies adopted by the company. The accepting environment and social policies adopted within Amtrak allow me to be 100% open about my sexuality without any fears of repercussions. We hope to have the problem rectified soon, and although there will always be the occasional site that slips through our fingers, we promise to be vigilant in continuing to monitor the situation.

Sincerely,

Mark Mastro

Kudos to Amtrak for taking immediate steps to solve the problem. Extra credit goes to their marketing division too for

  1. Finding Zack's post to start with
  2. Responding to Zack directly in a professional manner with a personal touch
  3. Taking immediate steps to rectify the problem

Now that is customer service.


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Good for Amtrak, but then, I'm really not surprised. Unless you're traveling multi-thousands of miles or overseas, Amtrak is very often the better, more comfortable, more cost effective alternative and they're smart to remind travelers of it at every opportunity. Just one more reason why I'll never deal with flying unless I absolutely have to.

I agree. Why fly when they can pat you down without a reason. Call me paranoid but as a queer I don't trust that I won't be abused by the people hired. So the train is the best and most comfy option.

A while back, I was at a computer in the University of Texas library killing some time between classes. I was going to check out TNG -- which incidentally used to be one of my favorite blogs until they turned their front page into a jumble of headlines and links and ads that gives me a headache just to look at -- typed in "thenewgay.com" and up popped a page of very racy gay porn for the whole room to see over my shoulder. I realized later that the URL was actually ".net"

But, regardless of whether or not Amtrak was discriminating against gay content, why the hell are they filtering content at all? They're a railroad, not a nanny.

Steven, I think as a business they should have the right to not have fellow passengers have to see and perhaps complain all over the place because the person near them is watching porn. Yes there are people who would do it no matter where or with whom. I think that is totally without class myself but not everyone has as much class as I do.

Reading this on the Metro-North loling the whole way. I use 3G if wifi isn't there, like now. Ive done the Amtrak New Haven to Boston run on the Accela and its nice. No gate rape to deal with, maybe a dog sniffing you. No big. Beats the hassle of flying, thetas for sure!

Perhaps the "automatic content filtering system" is a christian.

As I recall, Robyn Ochs discovered a similar problem several months ago. Upon doing a little research, it was found that several bi-themed organizations' sites were blocked. Not all were. I know that at least a couple people complained, but I don't recall hearing of anyone who received a letter like this one.

When my Partner and I used to live in the Washington DC area, we took Amtrak from Union Station to New York numerous times. It is such a great relaxed way to travel between DC and NYC. We took the Acela atleast once.

After 9/11, it was quite unsettling once we were in Northern New Jersey (approaching NYC) and not see the twin
towers.

Content filtering software is on the whole written by middle class white males... Gay is still a dirty word in the sexually repressed world of the programmer... As a former programmer I can testify that most of the people I worked with either A) had no worldly experience OR B) had very little worldly experience....