A newspaper columnist smelled a conspiracy this week after he was unable to visit sites like the Drudge Report during his recent stay at a Long Island, N.Y. hotel. But the company that connects guests to the web denied there was political censorship at work.
In a piece published Tuesday, James Varney of the New Orleans Times-Picayune detailed his experience at Hyatt Place in Riverhead, N.Y., an area he said "doesn't get much bluer."
"There may be a family or two left in the Hamptons that's been rotten with money for so long it can get away with being Republican, but you can be sure they keep a low profile," he wrote. "The dinner party guest lists there are carefully policed."
With the context established, Varney recalled his efforts to surf the Internet at the hotel. While the "left-wing sites roll as smoothly as Pacific Ocean sets," Varney discovered an "obnoxious computer tic while calling up not some venomous cyberspace location but the Drudge Report."
The site loaded, and then a kind of warning box like you wish would pop up repeatedly on your children's laptops filled the screen informing me it had been determined that site had some questionable content and viewing it was verboten.
The screen would go blank, and a kind of Orwellian corporate page would swim up from "Uniguest." Then back to the opening menu.
Varney reported the issue to a hotel desk clerk, who was "puzzled" and "recognized [Drudge] was not some place the lunatic, dangerous fringe lurks."
The columnist was also stymied when he attempted to visit other conservative sites like Instapundit and PowerLine. Meanwhile, Varney visited sites such as TPM and DailyKos with no trouble at all.
So, Varney reached out to Uniguest, the hotel's Internet service company, but he didn't receive a response. He spoke to a pair of representatives at Hyatt, who assured him "no political line was being enforced." Rather, they told him it was likely "virus and malware that prompted the warnings and kickoffs, not a point of view."
Varney wasn't convinced, and neither was RedState's Erick Erickson.
Erickson picked up the story on Wednesday, describing Varney's experience as one part of a disquieting trend.
"I think this problem is only going to escalate," Erickson wrote. "First Uniguest and Google next. Pretty soon conservatives will have to have their own web search engine as the liberals who control access to information will, like with weather temperature data, assure us that only their information is seen."
Erickson wrote that Uniguest owed Varney a better explanation, but at that point the company hadn't even addressed the concerns.
The response came Wednesday evening, when Varney published the "meat" of an email that had been "sent on behalf of Uniguest's Marketing Director who was traveling and not able to respond personally."
"Was sorry to hear about your disenchantment in being limited in your ability to surf freely. As I trust you can appreciate, in an effort to protect our Internet users in hotels and other public spaces throughout the world, content filters are placed on our software that attempt to provide a safe browsing experience free from explicit sites and hateful content. Importantly, in some instances, the filters rules have unintended consequences and block sites that common sense would deem safe. For example, occasionally small portions of content will trigger the filter until that content is removed. This can temporarily affect websites with frequently updated content as the filter operates in real-time. The block would occur whether the domain name was Disney.com, CNN.com or any other site that meets the filter's threshold of flagged keywords.
"Thank you for bringing this to our attention. It appears that the problem has resolved itself and the websites you pointed out in your article are available for viewing at the writing of this email."
Varney was "puzzled by that 'hateful content' bit" and he said he followed up to clarify if "The Drudge Report, Instapundit, and PowerLine are now available on all the company's computers or just at the Hyatt Place in Riverhead. I've asked for clarification on those points."
He also noted that his initial piece "generated considerable e-mail, almost all of it from people who said they have experienced very similar blackouts of conservative sites at hotels across the country." One reader from Kentucky recalled a similar experience while in Texas.