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There are a number of corporate standards which one would expect every reputable business to adhere to irrespective of where in the world they operate. For example I doubt a company like Microsoft is likely to announce any time soon that while they are trying to pursue green policies in Europe elsewhere they really couldn’t give a stuff. Similarly you could knock me down with a feather the day Rolls Royce proclaims it will start assembling machine parts in North Korea using slave labour.

I mention this because I am still thinking about the implications of an email I received from Starbucks HQ in Seattle, USA, a couple of weeks ago. I had asked them about their policy towards WiFi and child protection.

To be clear, in the context of this discussion Starbucks UK is exemplary. In every one of their coffee shops in Britain they installed simple, inexpensive technical measures to protect children from accessing or being exposed to pornographic material via the internet connection the company itself supplied. Big round of applause but in respect of their wider field of operations this is what they said

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 WiFi, we do reserve the right to stop any behaviour that interferes with our customer experience.

Starbucks has several specific enterprise-wide global policies. The look and feel of their premises. The quality of the coffee and the food that is served with it. With these sorts of things Starbucks does not simply reserve rights. Every franchisee everywhere must conform with closely specified standards that are actively policed and enforced. The company regards them as being core to the Starbucks brand. They take no chances.

Starbucks High Command obviously doesn’t think online child protection is important enough to qualify as an enterprise-wide global policy. Its decisions to block porn or not vary from market to market. That’s a real shame.

Hello McDonald’s

McDonald’s was among the first major providers of WiFi on British High Streets but they anticipated the point about porn. McDonald’s insisted on anti-porn filters being installed from the start. Bravo. Three gold stars. Ten out of ten.

However, I am an Adviser on these sorts of things to the United Nations and the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online. I have a professional interest which goes beyond the shores of dear old Blighty. McDonald’s is in over 100 countries. I wanted to know what they did there, so I asked.

In the beginning the McDonald’s Press Office was very friendly but, in the end, they let me down. They did not answer my question about their practice outside of the UK.

McDonald’s in Moscow and Washington DC

I was in Russia last week at the Russian Internet Governance Forum. I decided to conduct a test. I went to McDonald’s on Pushkinskaya (I’m told this was the first McDonald’s to open up in Moscow following the fall of Communism). The WiFi provider was a company called Beeline and I got straight through to hard core porn sites.

The only other country where I arranged for a McDonald’s test to be carried out was the USA. A colleague who lives there did it for me. Different WiFi provider, same result. I’m guessing this means McDonald’s follows the same line asStarbucks i.e. in different territories they put anti-porn measures in place only if the national law requires it or they feel they must because of local conditions. Not the most elevated ethical stance.

Local markets and cultural differences

I accept there are several factors in any business which are bound to be strongly tied to local market conditions but surely there are some which ought to be universal? Specifically in relation to children we have the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as several other international treaties which support that view.

I fully appreciate also that as between countries there can be differences in attitudes towards how children are brought up.  I acknowledge there are greater and lesser degrees of tolerance towards, for example, pictures which feature nudity or even mildly sexual imagery involving adults.

However, the kind of hard core porn sites I have in mind are a very long way away from anything of that nature. We are not talking about a Playboy centrefold c. 1980. There cannot be a parent on the planet who would want their children to be exposed to that kind of material, ever, or want their children to be able to access it, inside or outside the home, accidentally or deliberately.

Only in America

What is even more baffling about this area of policy is how, in Britain, American companies can feel compelled to introduce anti-porn measures whereas in their own backyard they don’t. Are British and American kids so very different? I don’t think so.

Certainly there would be no legal obstacle to Starbucks and McDonald’s introducing anti-porn filters in the USA or proclaiming that it was their intention to do the same worldwide.

Some people seek to explain the attitude of Starbucks and McDonald’s to their domestic market by referring to a prevailing 1st Amendment culture. However, what the 1st Amendment actually says is

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 successful legal challenge. But the Constitution is entirely silent in relation to the decisions of private individuals or corporations. It is for them alone to decide.

In US movie theatres a privately-established system of film classification is rigidly observed and on TV there are also exacting standards.  Anyone in any doubt about that need only recall the outcry following Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction when a single nipple was momentarily visible. The US nearly went into meltdown yet for years every day in Starbucks and McDonald’s………

My understanding is that this sorry state of affairs exists because the “internet porn question” has been taken up in the USA principally, if not exclusively, by the Christian Fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party and elements even to the right of them. This has led, in the political class, to the great body of centre and liberal opinion identifying it as a toxic issue. It’s not that they think porn should be accessible all of the time, everywhere to everyone, including kids, it’s just that they don’t want to be seen associating with people whose views, in almost every other respect, they abhor. That’s often how things go in politics but, in the interests of children, it seems to me there ought to be a way of navigating a path through.

And what do children say?

The most recent report of the LSE’s EU Kids Online project is entitled In their own words: what bothers children online? It is based on interviews with 10,000 kids drawn from 25 mainly EU countries. Pornography was named by 22% of the children as their foremost online concern, and there appeared to be no gender based difference. This made pornography the No. 1 issue for kids i.e. it was mentioned more frequently than any other single issue. Video-sharing websites were the ones most commonly associated with pornographic content. Not surprisingly younger children were more likely to be upset by porn than older ones.

Anyway the key point is this survey shows worries about online porn are more than just a projection of adult anxieties. They are rooted in what children and young people themselves feel. It is true that parents may have helped create certain apprehensions about porn in the minds of their children but that hardly changes the current reality for an individual child.

An absence of complaints does not make something right

Within the UK and a few other countries it is definitely the case that there has been a level of activism around online child protection issues in general and about WiFi in public spaces in particular which has not been replicated in other places. Should I say “yet”? However, in any given country the mere absence of complaints or campaigns does not prove no one cares, nor does it make something acceptable. Companies should not drag their feet or duck and dive so as to delay spending money to do what they know in their heart of hearts is right. This is a question of corporate social responsibility.

This not about free speech

Leaving aside sex shops, pubs and similar adult environments I seriously doubt any company operating on a UK High Street would argue that anyone coming on to their premises has a positive right to access porn whilst there. On the contrary, most expressly forbid it in their Terms and Conditions of Use so plainly they do not see this as a free speech issue. They are right. It isn’t. However, it is a challenge in terms of how much further companies are willing to go to make sure the policy works.

No one is saying there should be no porn on the internet. Neither is anyone saying adults should not be able to access porn. This is about a time and a place, common decency. It’s about a desire to shield children from sights and sounds they cannot properly evaluate or process, hence the risk of harm.

A health and safety issue for staff

Moreover what about the people who work in environments which have WiFi? American Airlines introduced WiFi on domestic flights. The unions insisted it be filtered to screen out porn. They didn’t want their members walking up and down the aisles constantly having to look at it on people’s iPads.  The company agreed. Well done to both unions and management. I’m not sure how many trade union officials in Britain or other parts of the world read this blog. I hope at least one or two do and that they will act accordingly.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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