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McDonald's Blocks Customers From Watching Porn on Its Free Wifi

The policy is now in effect at most of its 14,000 U.S. locations

McDonald's

In response to a problem that many likely didn’t even realize existed, McDonald’s is now filtering out pornography from the wifi at the majority of its 14,000 restaurants nationwide. The announcement comes as a result of a campaign spearheaded by Enough Is Enough, a nonprofit with the self-stated mission of "making the internet safer for children and families," in partnership with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) and more than 70 other organizations.

A McDonald’s spokesperson says the wifi filtering has already been activated "in the majority of McDonald’s nearly 14,000 restaurants nationwide," and that the company "is committed to providing a safe environment for our customers."

The announcement comes just after the Republican Party declared internet pornography a "public health crisis."

"For a few years now, we’ve been petitioning both McDonald’s and Starbucks to prevent childhood exposure at their restaurants," says Haley Halverson, communications director of the NCOSE. "So far, Starbucks has not yet responded. But after seeing thousands of signatures, McDonald’s did."

Halverson says the move is part of a "larger trend of companies that are distancing themselves from pornography." Chick-fil-A and Panera, she says, have similar policies in place.

Trend or not, the move to filter pornography from the wifi at a fast food restaurant raises several questions — namely, are that many people really using the hotspots at Starbucks and McDonald’s to watch porn? Are children somehow stumbling upon pornographic websites while using the internet at McDonald’s? Is this even a real issue?

A petition penned by Enough Is Enough and other groups claims that open wifi hotspots are being used "to access pornography and child pornography in plain view of the general public, including minor children." It’s unclear, however, how widespread of a problem these scenarios really are.

Is this even a real issue?

Halverson says her group has had "a few complaints" regarding children somehow viewing pornography while at McDonald’s, "but it’s mostly about the fact that [un-filtered wifi] can facilitate accidental childhood exposure to pornography."

The announcement certainly comes at an interesting time — during preliminary meetings held earlier this week, the Republican Party declared internet pornography a "public health crisis" under an amendment added to the draft party platform.

The groups spearheading the effort to filter wifi at McDonald’s and Starbucks have also lobbied members of Congress in the past. "We regularly have correspondence with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle on the harms of pornography and its ties to sexual violence against women and sex trafficking," says Halverson.

In a statement on the GOP platform, the NCOSE’s executive director Dawn Hawkins claimed that pornography use is linked to a number of health issues, including "decreased brain matter" and "increased erectile dysfunction."

Halverson points to a 2015 study which found that 27 percent of people first viewed pornography before puberty. "We really want to cut that number down," she says. (It’s worth noting that the above-mentioned study, titled "The Porn Phenomenon," was commissioned by a Christian organization.)

Of course, many McDonald’s critics (and even some shareholders) have long been in favor of having the chain examine a different sort of health crisis: one to determine the affect of its food and advertising campaigns on public health.

Wifi filtering might seem like a slippery slope — how can McDonald’s decide what people view on the internet? — but legal experts say the chain is well within its rights.

"The First Amendment protects us from government interference with our speech," says Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center. "It says, ‘Congress shall make no law,’ it doesn't say ‘McDonald’s shall make no law.’"

McDonald's can control what content patrons may view at its locations without violating Constitutional rights.

In other words, McDonald’s can offer a free service like wifi on its own terms — controlling both the length of time consumers access it, as well as the content they view. "Historically, libraries have grappled with this," notes Paulson. "Because they are government entities, most feel some obligation to provide access to the entire Internet. But that doesn't apply to non-governmental bodies. They can do whatever they like. Your employer, for instance, can restrict certain websites, too."

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is counting the McDonald’s announcement as a success, but will continue to focus its efforts on a number of other chains.

"We run a ‘dirty dozen list’ each year, that names twelve companies that facilitate sexual exploitation or pornography," says Halverson. Among those on the group’s 2015 list are Facebook, the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, and CKE Restaurants — parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., the latter of course being infamous for its so-called "slutburger" commercials.

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