Starbucks – porn providers to the world

 

WiFi access is available in every Starbucks coffee shop in the UK. BT is the WiFi supplier.

Until recently Starbucks UK applied no restrictions to their WiFi connection. This meant the company was providing access to every kind of web site, including those displaying hard core pornography.

Starbucks is not a nightclub or a casino. It’s a coffee bar. A public space. Anyone can go in. Young people and children are often there on their own or with their parents. In light of all the very public debates about the hazards associated with the early sexualisation of children and young people, a company like Starbucks ought really to have clocked this and acted accordingly. Why did they leave their WiFi open in that way?

McDonald’s had worked it out for themselves. When they introduced WiFi to their burger joints in Britain they put a porn filter in place. As far as I am aware they did that without any external prompting. This is not about free speech, it’s about common decency and a time and a place. No self-respecting business or other organization should provide such ready access to hard core porn in those kinds of environments.

Following protests by UK children’s organizations and a speech by Baroness Massey in the House of Lords in November, 2012, Starbucks and BT announced their intention to move swiftly to introduce controls to block access to online porn via their jointly provided WiFi service.  They kept their promise. Starbucks UK is now a porn free zone. But last month I discovered it’s a different story elsewhere.

I was in Lisbon for a conference. There was a Starbucks pretty much next to the venue. I went in, bought a coffee and logged on to their WiFi network. Maybe I shouldn’t have been but I was surprised to notice that the WiFi provider was BT. A little bell rang in the back of my head. Adjusting my false beard, dark glasses, long raincoat and wide brimmed hat, sitting in a corner so I knew I could not be overlooked, I typed in the url of the worst legal porn site I know and got straight through. The noises emanating from that little bell were now deafening.

The investigation

Working with a network of online safety experts on five continents I initiated some research into how Starbucks presents WiFi around the world.

I asked my “crew” to access the same site I got through to in Lisbon. If they couldn’t locate it I asked them to look for similar sites but to send me screenshots of what they found so I could be sure we were still talking about comparable material. In only one instance was that necessary.

I also asked the doughty team to test how easy it was to get online in Starbucks. Were there any serious pre-sign on formalities or authentication requirements? I did this on the (unproven) assumption that if someone believed their activities might easily be traced it would be likely to modify their behaviour in some way.

I set myself a deadline. When it expired I had results from 25 out of over 50 different countries where Starbucks has a presence. I think I could have carried on and got results from all 50-odd but 25 seemed a reasonable number to work with.

The results

In relation to pre-sign on formalities robust authentication was the exception rather than rule both in Europe and the rest of the world.

In every European nation in which a test was carried out, 14 in total, hard core porn sites were accessible in Starbucks via WiFi. In 11 of the countries we were able to identify the WiFi provider. In Poland and Ireland we were not. Nonetheless hard core pornography was still accessible. In Denmark the Starbucks shop where the test was carried out was inside a shopping mall. The WiFi signal was provided by a third party, to the mall as a whole, but through it hard core porn was again accessible inside Starbucks.

As you will see from the table below in four instances where the provider was identified it was BT.

European countries where Starbucks does not block access to pornography WiFi Provider Any pre-sign on authentication formalities?
Austria TPN Yes
Czech Republic O2 No
Denmark Shopping Mall No
France Quick Spot No
Germany BT No
Greece Forthnet No
Holland BT No
Ireland Unknown No
Poland Unknown No
Portugal BT No
Russia Beeline No
Spain BT No
Switzerland TPN Yes
Turkey Doruknet Yes

Outside of Europe a further 11 countries were tested. In Australia, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, India, Japan, New Zealand and the USA hard core porn is on tap courtesy of the WiFi connection available in Starbucks. A range of WiFi providers were being used. BT did not feature as a supplier in this batch.

In Oman, South Korea and Thailand porn was inaccessible in Starbucks via the WiFi service they provide but that seems to be because of wider legal restrictions which apply to such sites in those countries.

Corporate social responsibility?

There is a normative aspect to this question. It’s about companies taking responsibility for what they do. Anyone wanting to access porn on the internet will not be short of alternative venues, and even if they were do Starbucks really think they have a special mission to remedy that? At the expense of what?

It is true that even if filters were in place on the Starbucks network, providing they had previously downloaded it, a person could nonetheless still bring up pornographic content on the screen of their laptop, iPad or smartphone. Or they might have independent wireless access to the internet. Pornographic material could therefore still be seen by children and others sitting nearby. Starbucks’ own rules prohibit this type of behaviour but that only adds weight to the argument that as a company Starbucks should not themselves be providing customers with the means of breaking those rules, particularly when a simple and inexpensive fix is available to prevent that from happening.

Double standards

What’s good for British kids I reckon is good for children everywhere but instead what we see is Starbucks blocking porn seemingly only where it comes under public pressure to do so, as in the UK, or in other jurisdictions where it is a legal requirement. Hardly the most elevated ethical stance.

Starbucks should put this right. And perhaps someone from either Starbucks or BT, or both, would care to explain why their consciences seem to be limited by geography?

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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