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Tim Hortons apologizes for blocking Dailyxtra.com

Company to restore customer access to gay news website after media reports and public outcry

Canadian coffee giant Tim Hortons has decided to block dailyxtra.com from the public WiFi network available in all its restaurants. Credit: File photo

Canadian coffee giant Tim Hortons has apologized. A spokesperson for the company has contacted Daily Xtra to say that the coffee chain will be unblocking Dailyxtra.com on its store WiFi network.

“We’re working on unblocking your site. It never should have been blocked in the first place,” Michelle Robichaud says.

Robichaud says that a statement Daily Xtra received stating that our web site “is not appropriate for all ages viewing in a public environment” was made in error by Tim Hortons’ third-party WiFi vendor and “certainly does not represent [Tim Hortons’] opinion.”

Robichaud says that contrary to the WiFi administrator’s email to Daily Xtra that insists that “there is no way to change this decision,” customers should always feel free to contact Tim Hortons’ customer service line directly (1-888-601-1616).

“We apologize to anybody who may have been offended,” Robichaud added.

“Tim Hortons has resolved the situation properly and certainly we accept their apology,” says Brandon Matheson, Daily Xtra publisher and editor-in-chief.

“Issues around third-party filtering are problematic and if that is what was responsible, then Tim Hortons’ management took the appropriate steps to correct the problem for their customers that had complained they could not access Dailyxtra.com,” says Matheson.

When news that Tim Horton's had blocked Dailyxtra.com broke the morning of July 19 there was a flood of mainstream media attention and social media was abuzz.

Daily Xtra investigated after complaints the site was blocked were reported by Tim Horton's customers, but when Daily Xtra asked Tim Horton's system administrator for the website to be unblocked, the request was declined.

An email sent to Daily Xtra on July 16 from timhortonswifi@timhortons.com states that Tim Hortons had blocked dailyxtra.com because the website “was not appropriate for all ages viewing in a public environment.”

“We try to ensure that all of our guests can enjoy a safe and pleasant experience when visiting us. We look at all of these types of requests in detail in order to provide the most latitude we can while keeping our restaurants a friendly environment,” the administrator says in an email. “While there is no way to change this decision, we can assure you that it was not an easy decision to make.”

These statements Tim Hortons says were made in error by Tim Hortons’ third-party WiFi vendor who manages the timhortonswifi@timhortons.com email address. 

Tim Hortons’ WiFi system doesn’t appear to ban all gay news sites. Popular sites like The Advocate, Queerty and Towleroad were not blocked, but QueerClick was blocked when Xtra tried to access the sites in a Tim Hortons store.

This isn’t the first time Xtra has reported about gay websites being blocked by public WiFi networks. In 2011, Xtra reported that the Ottawa airport was blocking several gay news sites from its WiFi network.

As recently as this May, Xtra investigated reports that xtra.ca was being blocked from Second Cup’s public WiFi network. However, when Second Cup’s publicist was contacted, the Xtra site was unblocked.

In many cases when gay news sites are blocked, it's from public WiFi networks that are managed by third-party software that uses web crawlers to compile a list of offending websites by screening for key words. Sites that are blocked in error must be manually removed.

But no screening software is perfect. Inevitably, some pornographic sites get blocked, while other non-pornographic sites containing useful information about sexual health or sexual identities may be as well. Young people often turn to the internet for this information because they find it difficult to talk to their parents or other adults about it.

When a site is blocked, users are typically presented with a screen giving contact information for the system administrator, who can be notified if a site has been blocked in error. What’s shocking in this case is that Tim Hortons’ administrator has decided to maintain its block on Daily Xtra.

Public WiFi systems fall under official and unofficial scrutiny around the world. In the United States, the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act has made discounted telecom rates for public institutions like schools and libraries contingent on those schools installing screening devices to prevent minors from accessing “harmful material.”

And earlier this year, UK Prime Minister David Cameron went a step further when he announced plans to launch a code of conduct for all public and private WiFi providers that would block pornographic materials.

“We are promoting good, clean, WiFi in local cafes and elsewhere to make sure that people have confidence in public WiFi systems so that they are not going to see things they shouldn't,” Cameron is quoted as saying in The Telegraph.

In Canada, concerns about WiFi networks have tended to focus on the perceived but unproven health effects of radio waves used to broadcast WiFi signals. Still, censorship is not uncommon on Canadian public WiFi sites. In 2011, CBC reported that BC Ferries was blocking information about sex education and abortion on its networks.

Tim Hortons' WiFi administrators can be reached at timhortonswifi@timhortons.com.