Essays on Technology and Culture

Someone Always Pays

Slowly, but surely, New York City is rolling out free Wi-Fi kiosks on street corners. They’ll come fully-loaded with USB charging ports, VOIP calling, and an embedded Android tablet for those folks who don’t have a device to connect to it. Oh, and giant screens on each side to show ads to everyone. Ads based on “an audience profile algorithmically derived from the information the kiosks collect from their users,” to quote Nick Pinto in the Village Voice.

Rick’s article is a bit more… alarmist… than I would be in describing the LinkNYC kiosks. I’m no fan of ads that use my personal data to serve me something an algorithm considers “relevant.” This is partially because those algorithms are so regularly off base, and partially because I don’t feel these companies have the right to that data in the first place. Yes, even if I’m legally opting-in by connecting to the Wi-Fi in the first place. If you want to show me an advertisement, fine, but you don’t need to know anything and everything about me to show me one.

The point is, someone is always going to pay, one way or another. I can pay $50 a month to my local ISP for internet access, or I can pay in data for the local LinkNYC kiosk. (At least in theory. They won’t be installing them in my neighborhood until early next decade.) Sidewalk Labs is paying, but they want to make that money back, so they’re going to display ads. This shouldn’t be a surprise—it’s how the Internet works now-a-days.

What pushes LinkNYC into the creepy zone is that instead of the ads showing up in just my web browser, they’re going to be displaying on 55” screens on the street. I hesitate to call it propaganda like Nick Pinto does. It’s more just potential embarrassment if I happen to walk past my local kiosk and see an ad for men’s underwear, because I happened to be shopping for some the other night.

Of course, I can pay for internet service that isn’t going to chop up my browsing habits and spit ads out for every passerby. The ostensible goal of LinkNYC is to connect all those poor people who can’t afford high-speed internet access, or much of any internet access. If I’m going to assume my browsing with my pay ISP is secure and unmonitored—and there’s no reason to assume it is—but why should privacy be a luxury product?

And believe you me, Sidewalk Labs, itself a subsidiary of Alphabet, née Google, would like nothing more than for all of us to be hooked into their kiosks as the primary way we get online. We’re talking Gigabit speeds here. I’m paying out the nose for 60Mbps.

Last February, the FCC classified internet access as a public utility, akin to water, electricity, and phone service. I have to wonder how something like LinkNYC would work in a world where internet access was regulated the way we regulate electricity and water.

Yes, you have to pay for those, too. Either you pay yourself, or someone’s taxes pay for it via welfare programs and utility assistance, or you get your water shut off. The difference is that there’s no solution for ad-supported water in the home. Yet. (“Before you take a shower, you need to watch this 30 second ad for Geico.”)

In the meantime, the biggest concern most people have about LinkNYC is that homeless people are using them to watch porn, or have late night dance parties. I’m all for more people having better access to the Internet. I just wish there was a way for it to happen without trading privacy for the privilege. It’s true, someone’s always going to pay. And whoever is paying is going to want a return on their investment.