The Coming War Over Watching Porn in Fast-Food Restaurants

For years, fast-food chains have provided an unfiltered gateway to the internet. Thanks to the "National Porn Free Wi-Fi" campaign, those days might be coming to an end. Some see that as an infringement of free speech.

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Nov 14 2016, 5:00am

Image courtesy of Hana Song

Back in August, when presidential candidate Donald Trump took a pledge to help clamp down on pornography, smut lovers across the land laughed it off. But now that he is headed for the White House, it makes you wonder if folks should start stockpiling stag mags the way gun lovers hoarded rifles before Obama came into office.

One thought is that Trump, someone who likes to grab women "by the pussy" and has appeared in Playboy videos, might take one big sweeping action against erotica. Another thought is that he might kill it with a thousand cuts. We can already see the battle over the freedom of speech and obscenity is happening on many fronts. One of the most unlikely is in fast-food restaurants.

For years, fast-food chains have long provided an unfiltered gateway to the internet. But the days of having free reign on the web while sipping lattes might be coming to an end. Companies like Panera Bread, Subway, and Chick-fil-A are filtering content on their WiFi networks. They are all part of the growing National Porn Free WiFi campaign, which was started in 2014 and has since garnered 50,000 petitions and more than 75 partner organizations. The movement to block pornographic content over free WiFi is led by advocacy groups Enough Is Enough (EIE) and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), and boasts supporters like Pamela Anderson, Oprah Winfrey, and president-elect Donald Trump.

EIE and NCOSE have been incredibly instrumental in making an issue out of the idea that there are lots of perverted degenerates looking at porn in restaurants. "Before we started our outreach, places like McDonald's didn't even know there was a problem with public displays of pornographic content at their stores," says EIE president Donna Rice Hughes. McDonald's admits as such. In a recent statement, the corporation said, "We had not heard from our customers that this was an issue, but we saw an opportunity that is consistent with our goal of providing an enjoyable experience for families."

No reliable statistics exist on how often public WiFi networks have actually been used to view pornography. But Hughes points to one case where a registered sex offender downloaded kiddie porn at a Starbucks in Hillsboro, Oregon, as a harrowing example of what can happen when people have unrestrained access to the web in a public place. "This isn't just about being a good corporate citizen," she says. "It's about so much more."

As horrible as that instance in Hillsboro, Oregon, is, we do know that the vast majority of people aren't looking at kiddie porn when they use an online network at a restaurant. The folks who really rely on these free WiFi networks are the poor in rural and urban environments, who use them to do everything from check their email to finish their art history homework after the public library closes. The tricky thing with the proposed filters of the "National Porn Free Wi-Fi" movement is blocking pornographic content without obstructing everyday people from having access to legitimate stuff on the web. Some filters on the market block important service sites like Planned Parenthood, social media sites like Facebook, and even articles like the one you're reading right now, which might have "porn" in the headline, but do not actually contain explicit content.

Starbucks, a newcomer to the National Porn Free WiFi campaign, is cognizant of this dilemma. "Once we determine our customers can access our free WiFi in a way that also doesn't involuntarily block unintended content, we will implement [filters] in our stores," says Maggie Jantzen, a spokesperson for the company. Instead of straight up filtering sites, Starbucks is blocking specific URLs it deems explicit.

But even that is problematic, considering what is explicit is often hard to define. "Porn is in the eye of the beholder," says Jas Chana, communications director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. "What is considered porn to one is considered art to another. It's not for one person to say, and a subjective viewpoint should not be considered unconstitutional."

Advocates within the National Porn Free WiFi campaign are quick to point out that it is totally legal for companies like Starbucks to restrict access to their free internet in anyway they see fit. "These are private businesses making internet policy decisions," says NCOSE executive director Dawn Hawkins. "McDonald's doesn't put pornography on its menu, so they don't owe pornography services to their customers."

Porn fans across the country understand this, but they still view the blocking of content as an issue of corporate censorship. "Having your morality dictated to you is never a good thing," says Captainloverman, a Reddit user since 2009 who frequents threads on the topic of viewing erotica in public. "I wouldn't watch porn in Starbucks, but I resent the idea that someone else has taken the choice from me."

"What is considered porn to one is considered art to another. It's not for one person to say, and a subjective viewpoint should not be considered unconstitutional."—Jas Chana of the National Coalition Against Censorship

The rise in support around the National Porn Free WiFi campaign has arrived at a time when the Republican Party has declared pornography a "public health crisis." Similar to bans on indoor smoking, Hawkins thinks that businesses are promoting the health and well-being of their clientele by banning porn.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this sentiment. An estimated 40 million Americans consider themselves regular visitors to porn sites. "The idea of porn as a 'public health crisis' isn't based in science, but rather rooted in religious and moral ideologies," says Mike Stabile, communications director of the Free Speech Coalition. "We've found that the anxiety around the access to adult material often goes hand-in-hand with the same organizations concerns about women's sexuality and sexual education and LGBTQ rights. In fact, what we've seen from studies is that viewers of adult content are more likely to be feminist, more likely to treat their partners as equals, and more likely to a have positive attitude toward sexuality. And one thing that has been consistent over years of increasing access to adult material is that it corresponds to dramatic decreases in sex crimes."

Not to mention, the internet filters being pushed by the National Porn Free WiFi campaign might actually inspire more people to look at porn. According to data from the Porn Phenomenon, 29 percent of adults "seek out" pornography on at least a monthly basis; but for those who use a filter, it's a whopping 39 percent.

At the end of the day, no reasonable person thinks that people should be watching hardcore butt sex videos in fast-food joints. But it'd be a shame if a rare occurrence like that made it so that a student couldn't couldn't Google image search Michelangelo's David. As this debate continues, it will be interesting to see which fast food chain will be the next to take the porn-free WiFi pledge. According to EIE, Burger King is on the National Porn Free WiFi campaign's radar.

So much for having it your way.

Follow Crystal Ponti on Twitter.

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