The Prime Minister, Starbucks, Edelman and two bits of good news


It’s not every morning you wake up to find yourself on the front page of a major national newspaper sharing a slot with your country’s Prime Minister. That’s what’s happened to me last Wednesday. The media focus was on WiFi in public places.  For these purposes a public space is somewhere one might reasonably expect children and young people to be found on a regular basis.

WiFi in public places : two issues 

The UK’s children’s organizations strongly welcome the greater availability of WiFi but we had become concerned that businesses were providing it in public spaces without having thought through some of the consequences.

We wrote to the UK’s big six WiFi providers.  Inter alia we pointed out that, at home and on mobile phones, parents may have taken great care to ensure filters are in place to protect their children from various types of online content. Yet such measures can be reduced to naught if unrestricted WiFi is available on the street or in places where kids can easily get at it. Albeit unwittingly WiFi providers could be subverting good parenting.

Aside from what kids themselves might access, there’s then the little matter of what they may be exposed to by others whilst on or in the vicinity of the premises of companies or organizations providing WiFi access. The vicinity is important because WiFi signals “leak”.

There is an analogy with what happened historically with porn magazines and videos. Most High Street shops did not sell them.  Where they were on sale normally they would be inside a cover which obscures any sexual detail. Such publications would also usually be placed on the top shelf so as to be out of the line of vision of children as well as adults who might not want to view them involuntarily.

However, coffee shops, burger bars and other places on today’s High Street are now big WiFi providers. If someone is sitting next to you at the same table or at an adjoining one, and they are using a large screen tablet or laptop, even the least nosey person would not be able to avoid “sharing”. Step forward David Cameron.

The PM says

Last Tuesday Mr Cameron disclosed his backing for a code under which providers of WiFi in public spaces would screen out pornography. Big round of applause. Seemingly the final details of the code, the small print, will be reported to the next meeting of the UKCCIS Executive on 7th May. Watch this space.

The UK’s children’s organizations identified the growth of public WiFi as a policy challenge about five years ago. However, it was the more recent discovery of what was happening at  Starbucks, or I should say what was not happening, that piqued and revived our interest.  But first a minor but interesting legal digression.

Sexual Offences Act 2003

s.12 of the Sexual Offences Act, 2003, makes it a criminal offence for an adult to cause a child to watch a sexual act, and that includes images of such an act. A transgressor could face up to ten years in prison.

There are two key elements to the crime. The adult must cause the child to watch the sexual act for his own sexual gratification and, it follows, it must be intentional. Clearly that rules out shopkeepers, coffee bar owners and the like but we are in proximate territory. Motivation is important in terms of establishing criminal intent but in relation to the potentially harmful impact on the child it hardly matters.

Starbucks’ Terms & Conditions of Use

Back to Starbucks.  In the UK as far as I can tell the terms and conditions applying to users of Starbucks’ WiFi had always prohibited people from displaying obscene material. However, the company had failed to implement any of a range of easily available, inexpensive and simple practical measures to underpin and help enforce their no porn rule. Several other big brands operating in the same sort of markets had done so. McDonald’s and Costa Coffee are two that spring to mind most readily.

Following a chance encounter with a senior member of staff at Starbucks I tried to engage with them starting back in July, 2011. My assumption was there was no way the company would have knowingly and deliberately taken a high level decision to make porn and other gruesome stuff available in their shops. It was an oversight. They would put everything right the minute it was drawn to their attention. Wrong.

Talking to Starbucks. Not.

After months of endless emails I was getting nowhere. Stonewalled. I then stumbled on the fact that in the UK Starbucks had a PR agency: Edelman. It is one of the biggest in the world. I got in touch with them. Stonewalled again.

Edelman have an excellent reputation so I ruled out incompetence or rudeness. I assumed Starbucks had instructed Edelman to ignore the issue or put it on a slow back burner.

16 months later – time to try a new approach

Quiet diplomacy is almost always the preferred route but from where I was sitting eventually I concluded that had comprehensively failed. Disappointing, but there you go.

In early November, 2012 I discovered a debate was due in the House of Lords on online child protection. On 8th November, 2012, I briefed Baroness Massey. The debate was the following day and in it Lady Massey referred to the facts about Starbucks that I have outlined above.

A Government Minister was in the chamber for the debate. He heard what was said about Starbucks and expressed horror, as did several other Right Honourable Members. Anyone watching the debate on TV via the Parliament Channel or the internet must have had to pinch themselves. Within hours Starbucks issued a statement saying they would introduce anti porn measures before Christmas. But the public relations damage was done.

PR failure

The next morning the Starbucks story featured on the Today programme, the UK’s premier current affairs broadcast slot, and it was in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and The Sun. Inevitably it spread to the blogoshpere. Maybe in comparison with the bad press Starbucks was by then getting on tax the porn thing was playing in a minor key but that was no reason to ignore it. The fact that they caved so quickly showed it was avoidable.

After the debate in Parliament no one from Starbucks or Edelman contacted me consequently, on 19th December, 2012, once again I took the initiative and contacted them. I asked Edelman if the promised Christmas deadline was going to be met. I was told it might slip a week or two but was assured someone from Edelman would let me know when it was all finally up and running. Nobody got in touch. I had to find out for myself. I did a check, I think in mid or late January, but I was happy to see Starbucks had kept their word. Starbucks had become a porn free zone. It was a good outcome. As far as I was concerned the matter was then closed. Wrong.

Ooops. Double standards

Towards the end of February I had to go to a conference in Lisbon. There happened to be a Starbucks more or less next to the venue. I discovered Starbucks Portugal was exactly the same as Starbucks UK had been before the change in policy. In other words Starbucks seemed to be doing one thing for British kids and something different elsewhere.

Utilising my network of online security experts around the world I initiated research in 25 countries where Starbucks operates. Long story short: in each of the European countries that were tested, 14 in all, hard core porn was accessible in Starbucks via WiFi. In one instance, in Copenhagen, Starbucks used the WiFi made available to all the traders in the shopping mall where their establishment is situated, whereas normally Starbucks itself arranges the WiFi supply directly with a contractor.

Outside of Europe hard core porn was again accessible via WiFi in Starbucks in eight of the eleven countries where tests were carried out. The three where porn was inaccessible had local laws which required all internet access providers to block sites of that kind.

Is this a case of double standards? Starbucks will restrict access to porn where the law requires it or where it comes under pressure to do so, but not otherwise. That is not an easy line to defend.

Here we go again

After my previous experiences of non-communication with Starbucks and Edelman I felt under no obligation to consult them further or discuss my new research findings with them.

I published a blog setting out what I had found in the 25 countries where tests were carried out. This went up on 18th March. My wife, who is a member of the House of Lords but has a different surname, tweeted about it to her 3,000 followers. The next day she got an email from the CEO of Starbucks UK & Ireland asking if he could speak to her.

On the phone call CEO Engskov gets straight into it, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was speaking to my better half. He did not dispute the accuracy of my account. His point was largely that

…’s a lot more complicated than John Carr’s blog suggests

Hmmm. I know Starbucks works through franchising but if they can control the taste of the coffee and croissants in every shop on Earth bearing their name, if they can determine the look and feel of all the premises carrying their logo, it must be possible for them to exert themselves in order to protect the interests of children and families. It’s a matter of corporate social responsibility.

I have heard mumblings about how the laws in some countries might make it difficult, if not impossible to follow the line I am advocating. OK. If it can’t be done in a number of jurisdictions so be it but that’s no reason not to do it where it can be done.

Incidentally I will take some convincing that there could be any legal barrier which prevented a Starbucks franchisee saying to a local WiFi provider

I would like to pay you to provide my customers with access to part of the internet, not all of it. Please exclude adult sites but let them have everything else. I’ll explain to my customers the limitations I have set.

Certainly there would be no legal obstacle to Starbucks doing it in the USA.

1st Amendment

Congress shall make no law…..abridging…..freedom of speech

In other words under the US Constitution if an arm of Government attempted to mandate that certain types of content on the internet should be banned it could give rise to a legal challenge. But the Constitution is entirely silent in relation to the decisions of private individuals or corporations such as Starbucks in matters of this kind. It is for them to decide. They have no obligations under the 1st Amendment.

The second bit of good news

The alacrity with which CEO Engskov responded to a Tweet by a Member of the House of Lords demonstrated again that Starbucks and (presumably) Edelman are capable of moving swiftly when they want to or feel they need to but otherwise they are obviously content to hand out the mushroom treatment.

But once more there was a welcome result. Several of the colleagues in other countries who had been helping me with the research vowed to take up the issue locally immediately following the publication of my blog. My German colleagues were one of the first out of the traps. On 21st March Starbucks Germany replied saying they were planning to introduce an anti-porn filter as soon as they possibly could.

On 22nd March Starbucks Germany got in touch again, this time on the phone, to say they were raising the matter “at European level.” I have since had this confirmed by a third party, but I am not yet clear exactly what “at European level” means. Are Starbucks going to insist on anti porn measures only in EU countries, or the whole of Europe? And what about outside Europe?

One last conversation with Starbucks

Before publishing this blog I made one final attempt to get an authoritative statement from Starbucks about their plans. I was in touch with their Head Office in Seattle and with the UK Press Office. This is what they said on 22nd April

Starbucks strives to create a welcoming environment and community in our stores around the globe. While we don’t have a specific enterprise-wide, global policy on what customers can and cannot access on our free in-store Wi-Fi, we do reserve the right to stop any behaviour that interferes with our customer experience.

Note they do not have an “enterprise-wide, global policy on what customers can and cannot access on our free free in-store WiFi”.  Does this mean that in some countries they do not explicitly prohibit the display of obscene material, as they seemingly always have in the UK? That would be odd, would it not?

Starbucks should have an “enterprise-wide, global policy” about their responsibilities to children and young people who use their facilities. If they did it would swiftly follow that in all of their shops where WiFi is available they would require that active anti-porn measures are taken.

When I pressed them on the global dimension, all I got back was they have

Currently no plans to share

Is that code? Are they saying the following?

We’re going to do it but we’ll announce it in our own good time

How could this happen?

I am still mystified by several aspects of this sorry saga. How could a large, high profile company such as Starbucks, one that rightly cherishes its reputation as an ethical enterprise, allow this sort of situation to develop in the first place? How come their PR company failed to steer them rapidly into clearer, calmer, less troublesome waters?

I cannot believe the customer demographic for Starbucks would be in the least bit put off to discover that the company was taking active steps to ensure hard core porn was no longer going to be accessible in any of their stores worldwide. Quite the opposite.

What next?

I think Starbucks should make a public announcement soon. They should say their intention is to ensure that, as soon as and wherever possible, when WiFi access is provided on their premises, every shop will have technical measures in place to block access to porn if not also to a wider range of materials not suitable for minors. All of the UK’s mobile phone networks have been doing something similar since 2004. This is not rocket science.

Starbucks coming out in this way would make every retail outlet in the world think about the issue. More than likely it would also capture the attention of municipalities and other sorts of bodies that supply or are thinking about supplying WiFi in public spaces. That would be real leadership. Starbucks could add a little more lustre to their ethical crown.