LinkNYC

Who it hurts the most when public internet isn’t public

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Remember LinkNYC? If not, it’s the free public wireless network that New York City began to install in parts of Manhattan last year. The first of its kind, LinkNYC debuted to rapturous praise from the tech-press over its very fast network speed. The kiosks, which replaced old pay phones, are the result of a partnership between the city and a consortium of private groups called CityBridge. They provide a wifi signal which anyone nearby with a wifi-capable device can use to get online, a USB charging port, and an attached screen that allows for web browsing.

Now, The New York Times reports, web browsers are going to be inaccessible from the Kiosks’ built-in screens because of problems with the homeless. Officials have agreed to “switch off the browsing functions on the tablets built into the kiosks as a temporary solution while they consider permanent changes, including limiting how long people can use the tablets.”

But why would New York City do away with such a groundbreaking innovation?

Users were expected to make short stops at the kiosks to consult maps, gather information or charge their phones. But the kiosks quickly attracted the homeless and other idle people who took full advantage of the unlimited access to the internet to watch movies and play music for hours.

There’s an element of moral panic to the decision. The Times quotes a letter from District 3 Manhattan City Councilman Corey Johnson describing “individuals creating personal spaces for themselves, engaging in activities that include playing loud explicit music, consuming drugs and alcohol, and the viewing of pornography.” Johnson, whose district includes, among other areas, Chelsea and parts of midtown, says the Police Department has asked for “several problematic kiosks” on Eighth Avenue to be removed.

As Nick Pinto reported for The Village Voice in July, one part of CityBridge is an Alphabet-owned startup called Sidewalk Labs (Alphabet, lest we forget, is basically just Google by another name). LinkNYC certainly isn’t free to install and maintain, requiring CityBridge to “lay miles of new fiber and operate, maintain, and upgrade the network at no cost to you the consumer,” according to Pinto. The installation alone will cost the consortium $300 million.

What CityBridge gets is advertising and data. It gets to sell ads on the kiosks, and gets to collect data from users. Even though LinkNYC only collects anonymized data, it can easily de-anonymized and the system’s privacy policy, already a cause for concern to civil libertarians, doesn’t really protect against that. But a homeless person who uses the kiosk-based browsers—for illicit purposes or otherwise—probably doesn’t have that much consumer data to offer up, and they may put off a tourist, or someone waiting outside their office near Times Square, who can be both advertised to and mined for information.

Since Bill deBlasio took office as mayor, New York City’s homeless problem seems to have gotten worse. Shelter stays and populations are up, movement into city-subsidized housing is down, and rent continues to rise. Kiosk-based browsing won’t fix any of these larger problems, but it’s useful to those, like the homeless, who don’t have internet access otherwise. People shouldn’t be jerking off at a LinkNYC kiosk (I guess the planned content filters didn’t work), but disabling browsers is punishing the people who could be best served by this new, ostensibly-public utility.

It’s almost as if LinkNYC was never about serving the public in the first place.