- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
Iran’s English-language, state-sponsored media service PressTV may have stumbled onto something, in spite of itself. An article published Thursday cites a bizarre YouTube rant by financial analyst and PressTV contributor Mike Stathis (author of recent articles "Jewish Mafia tied to death of America" and "Zio-Saudis use petrodollar to wage war," which are as unhinged as their titles suggest), in which he accuses Starbucks of blocking PressTV’s website but not, for example, pornographic websites.
The YouTube video, which PressTV’s article does not link to, lays out Stathis’s conspiratorial theory, which is that Starbucks is censoring PressTV’s site as part of an effort by a hypothetical Jewish cabal to control U.S. opinion. Stathis has some unkind things to say about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and investment guru Peter Schiff (no, he does not connect those dots beyond "they’re both Jewish"; yes, it’s just as nonsensical in the video). And he takes a break from his rant to talk to a pornographic webcam recording he claims he’s accessing from a Starbucks. The whole thing is strange and uncomfortable to watch, and not terribly work appropriate. I can’t say I recommend it.
Here’s the thing, though: Stathis is on to something. On Friday, I walked across the street to Starbucks. Sure enough, PressTV’s website wouldn’t load. In an effort to find another website that wouldn’t load (and probably put myself on a few watch lists), here are some other sites I tried: Iran’s other English-language state news agency Fars, the Syrian Arab News Agency, Russian propaganda machine Pravda, white supremacist web forum Stormfront, and PornHub, which is exactly what it sounds like. They were all accessible — at the glacial speed of coffee shop Wi-Fi, but accessible. I walked two blocks to another Starbucks. Once again, PressTV gave me an error message, while Stathis’s crazy YouTube video loaded without a hitch. Same thing at a third Starbucks. Back here at the FP office: PressTV’s site loaded, no problem.
When reached for comment, Laura Mill, a spokesperson for Starbucks, told FP, "We do not filter our content or websites that can be accessed in our stores in the U.S. There’re some global nuances, but in the U.S. there’s no filtering." IT specialists at Starbucks told her the site might be blocked by the Internet service provider.
Starbucks’s Wi-Fi is provided by AT&T, which did not reply to a request for comment by press time. But PressTV was easily accessible on the protected Wi-Fi network at the AT&T store across the street from one of the Starbucks locations I visited Friday. Starbucks’s Wi-Fi also has AT&T terms and conditions that users agree to when logging in. And buried in the fine print, AT&T passes the buck back to Starbucks:
The owner or operator of the Location may have implemented URL filtering or other content filtering services which block access to certain websites or content while at the Location (‘content filtering’).
As it happens, AT&T’s terms and conditions protect it from liability for just about any disruption in service you can imagine (and a few that you probably didn’t think of):
AT&T will not be liable for any failure of performance, if such failure is due to any cause beyond AT&T’s reasonable control, including acts of God, fire, explosion, vandalism, nuclear disaster, terrorism, cable cut, storm or other similar occurrence, any law, order or regulation by any government, civil, or military authority, national emergencies, insurrections, riots, wars, labor difficulties, supplier failures, shortages, breaches, or delays, or delays caused by you or your equipment.
Something does seem to be blocking access to PressTV at Starbucks, but whether that’s a person or just a glitch — and why PressTV and not, say, the Fars News Agency as well — remains unclear. But if you think it’s evidence of a grand conspiracy to deprive the American public of Iranian propaganda, maybe it’s time to take off your tinfoil hat.