As you probably already knew, Starbucks provides free access to the internet via WiFi. In the UK this is available to anyone who is on (or very near) their premises. BT Openzone is the WiFi supplier, under contract to Starbucks.
I live in London directly opposite a Starbucks. Last year I discovered that their WiFi was completely unrestricted (except in relation to the IWF list). This means anyone using it can gain access to the whole of the internet, including the grossest of hard core porn sites. This did not seem right to me. “My”Starbucks, for example, is a major meeting point for many of the mums and nannies in the neighbourhood who often congregate there with their young charges in tow.
In July 2011, entirely by chance, I bumped into an old acquaintance of mine. It turned out he held a senior position with Starbucks UK. I suggested to him the policy Starbucks was following in relation to WiFi was wrong and indefensible in what is a family, or at any rate a mixed environment. He appeared to be sympathetic. We had several email exchanges but they dragged on. I figured either he was running into major opposition to a change of policy from within the company or he was giving me the run around. I like to think it was the former. In May of this year, ten months later, after I had sent yet another email asking for news, I received an auto-responder message telling me my pal had left. It gave me the email address of his successor.
I got in touch with the new guy and quickly learned I had to start at square one, going through the whole thing again. Unlike my mate, however, the new guy was initially aggressively opposed to any change in the status quo. He spoke about free speech and not wanting to be a censor. I pointed out that the minute any Starbucks customers stepped off the premises they would not exactly be short of places to access porn or “speak freely”. All we were talking about here was the way companies should behave on the High Street. Starbucks is not Spearmint Rhino.
Anyway this exchange with the new guy led me to think the idea of protecting children who come on to their premises from exposure to hard core pornography and other age inappropriate materials had not yet taken deep roots in the company’s philosophy. On a trip to the USA I went into a Starbucks in Washington DC and discovered exactly the same situation existed there. Hmmm. In the beginning, charitably, I thought maybe the Starbucks policy in the UK was an accident or an oversight. Now I wasn’t so sure.
Long story short, the second guy eventually adopted a more emollient tone but pretty soon thereafter he too parted company with Starbucks. Coincidence? Must be. Unfortunately this time there was no auto-responder to re-direct me. My emails remained unanswered. In the end I found out the chap had left the building and the business only when I spoke to someone on the Starbucks switchboard.
The next bit was tiresome. It seems it is impossible to ring Starbucks and speak to anyone directly, other than the switchboard operator. All you can do is email or get through to an extension and leave voice messages. I did both. No reply received.
Undaunted and by means which I will not disclose I found out that Starbucks have a PR agency that handles their affairs in the UK. I got in touch about a month ago. I made it clear, as I had done before, that if Starbucks came back with a convincing promise to resolve the problem very soon I would let the matter rest. I said I had no interest in drawing unfavourable attention to companies genuinely trying to put things right within a reasonable time frame. But I also made clear that I was not going to let the matter drop or listen to another snow job.
Despite yet more reminders to the PR agency, and even a short phone call with them last week, I heard nothing. A debate on online child protection was scheduled to take place in Parliament, in the House of Lords, yesterday (Friday). I waited until the last possible moment before taking my next step.
On Thursday afternoon I briefed one Member of the Lords – Baroness Massey – on the Starbucks angle. On Friday morning, the day of the debate, I received an email from Starbucks’s PR agents telling me “we finally have a meeting with BT to sort this out”. By then it was too late and, frankly, being told Starbucks “have a meeting” with BT Openzone was less than electrifying news.
The debate in Parliament was picked up this morning by the UK’s premier current affairs programme, Today, on BBC Radio 4. Starbucks featured prominently. At least three newspapers also covered it: The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun. Doubtless it will be picked up by other news outlets around the world.
I note that in one or other of these news articles BT and Starbucks both promised that a solution to block access to porn sites will be in place “by the end of the year”. I wonder if that would have been the case if there had been no debate in Parliament or if there had been no reports of it in the media?
BT is a company that has lots of credit in the child protection bank for the pioneering work it did back in 2003-4 dealing with child pornographic images on the web but the slow-footedness of their response in this instance has been underwhelming in the extreme.
In several newspapers Costa Coffee were not slow to point out that their WiFi access was “filtered”. Virgin, Sky and O2, BT’s major competitors in the WiFi space, likewise had all beaten them to the punch. That need not and should not have been the case.