Monday, March 4, 2024

Sense, censorship and conversation


Should controls on Internet and email usage in public spaces and cafes, bars and restaurants be welcomed?


When you see someone sat in a café tapping away on a laptop what do you think? Could they be a media dahling on a deadline, a freelancer desperately seeking work, an Al-Qaeda member plotting their next mission or maybe just a filthy sort sat looking at porn? The Internet and email are essentials for many of us, but increasingly changes are occurring in venues and public spaces with regard to what websites and mail software they allow their guests to access and use.


Free WiFi proliferates now in public spaces, bars and restaurants but what are the limitations of using it?
Free WiFi proliferates now in public spaces, bars and restaurants but what are the limitations of using it?

As an example, Colbert in Sloane Square offers visitors free access to WiFi but usage of mail software such as Microsoft Outlook to access emails is blocked. This is an option chosen by venues that wish to stop spammers mass mailing Viagra and penis enlargement sales pitches on their services and is, in a way, understandable. It’s just highly inconvenient if you want to quickly send an email from a laptop or tablet device and a friend of mine expressed great frustration about this earlier today.


Places such as the Victoria & Albert Museum insist that those using their WiFi accept a series of conditions but offer uncensored access including the ability to use mail software. They do not ask users to provide any personal information and this seems like a happy medium based upon the assumption that those using the service are adult enough not to abuse what is provided. We doubt the art loving sorts visiting the V&A are likely to be using such locations as modern day “dead letter offices” and locations from which to conduct espionage but who could possibly tell?


Continuing with another two examples in the aforementioned Sloane Square, The Botanist and Côte both allow password-controlled access to their WiFi without restrictions. This works perfectly but in chains such as Geronimo Inns, a decision to censor certain sites that are considered offensive in the eyes of the management places them in the same league as the Christian bed and breakfast owners who refused to allow a gay couple to stay. Such a decision raises the question: “What is ‘acceptable’?” and “what is not?” and whilst Geronimo block such websites as Saucy Dates, Marital Affair and Gaydar on the basis of their considering them indecent, other venues opt to go as far as to block Facebook even. The selfie loving sorts that frequent gastropubs and nightclubs would reel in horror if they found they couldn’t get on Instagram and just imagine if Wikileaks were to be blocked in Julian Assange’s one time home, the Frontline Club in Paddington.


In many restaurants and bars – including Pizza Express and McDonalds – a choice has been made to use the BSkyB owned The Cloud to provide free WiFi to their customers. I found it was available in the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital even yesterday also – but only if you paid a most ludicrous £10 per hour. Equally, given the current debate around metadata and that The Cloud is ultimately under the control of Rupert Murdoch, questions arise about what is done with what happens to the personal information those customers using this service ends up. Hacked Off director Hugh Grant better be careful next time he goes into his local Pizza Express on Fulham Road.


In conclusion, one could ask: “Are such Internet and WiFi control policies sensible or are these yet further examples of a world that is becoming more and more like something out of 1984?” Those providing free Internet and WiFi services have a right to provide as and what they see fit but equally customers must also realise that by using such services, there are all sorts of potential ramifications. “Free WiFi”, just like “free Hotmail” and “free Gmail”, isn’t really free and that is a vitally important point.


I am the first to admit I am a major offender in terms of how much I tend to use WiFi whilst out and about, but whilst in public spaces, cafes, bars and restaurants, much could be said for turning off our devices and using these places for what they were really designed for. The ability to use WiFi whilst on the move is certainly wonderful and extremely useful, but wouldn’t the world be a better place if we chose to converse a little more with our fellow man instead?



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    1. I like having WiFi access when I go to a coffee shop but do people really need to sit tapping away of an evening when in a Michelin starred restaurant? Witnessed this the other day. When a chef makes fantastic food, it is insulting to sit tapping away on Facebook I’d argue.

    2. You are right in your comment about “free WiFi” not being “free”. These companies are all grabbing our data. It’s very worrying. Watch out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    3. I think the free market should decide. I fully understand why places wish to charge people for using WiFi. They do not want people seated in their venue for hours on end, and maybe purchasing a single cup of coffee, simply to use the WiFi. Those that do that might prevent other potential customers having a seat in a busy period and hence the potential customers are lost to a different venue.

      I am just miffed when some are more interesting in their own rules than business sense. An example is a cafe that I frequent for lunch. They have what might be considered a reasonable policy that the WiFi is turned off during lunch period of 12.00pm-2.00pm (or some such) at weekends to stop people hogging tables during the busy period. But when I was in there on a weekend lunchtime recently, the place was half empty. I asked them if they would turn on the WiFi for me and if it got busy I would leave. I explained I had no desire for them to lose business because I wanted to use the WiFi. The manager simply refused. I therefore cancelled my tea and asked for the bill. The cafe lost out on the sale at least one, maybe two cups of tea because of their policy and they made a customer rather annoyed at what was perceived to be idiocy. One the way out I saw the owner seated at a table. He recognised me as a frequent customer. I explained to him why I was leaving and he was horrified. He offered to turn the WiFi on immediately, but by this stage it was too late. I had decided to leave. I still frequent that establishment but have not yet been back at a weekday lunchtime to see if the manager would treat customers in a better manner

    4. I own Saucy Dates which is cited in this article and I use free wi-fi a lot on business. When I visit a coffee shop and my own site is blocked I have to say that I do understand. In the UK many sites are also blocked by the phone operators until you request access to over 18 content. With larger screens such as iPads and laptops, blocking content is important, likewise if someone is watching adult content on their phone it would be wrong to here a climaxing couple through the speakers whilst you are sipping your latte. There is a time and place for everything.

    5. As long as you don’t bank on-line in these remote places but rather at home, or indeed perform any sensitive research or using your credit card, and just reading your emails, I don’t think poses any real threat. If I check into an hotel and they charge me for Wifi I just walk out as it’s an outrage that in this day and age anybody should charge for this now very basic ordinary day to day essential service, just like the telephone was in your hotel room, or the call-box in the foyer. By the way if you threaten to leave they end up not charging you for the wifi.


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