Someone Always Pays
Slowly, but surely, New York City is rolling out free Wi-Fi kiosks on street corners. Theyâ€™ll come fully-loaded with USB charging ports, VOIP calling, and an embedded Android tablet for those folks who donâ€™t have a device to connect to it. Oh, and giant screens on each side to show ads to everyone. Ads based on â€œan audience profile algorithmically derived from the information the kiosks collect from their users,â€ to quote Nick Pinto in the Village Voice.
Rickâ€™s article is a bit moreâ€¦ alarmistâ€¦ than I would be in describing the LinkNYC kiosks. Iâ€™m no fan of ads that use my personal data to serve me something an algorithm considers â€œrelevant.â€ This is partially because those algorithms are so regularly off base, and partially because I donâ€™t feel these companies have the right to that data in the first place. Yes, even if Iâ€™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 donâ€™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 wonâ€™t be installing them in my neighborhood until early next decade.) Sidewalk Labs is paying, but they want to make that money back, so theyâ€™re going to display ads. This shouldnâ€™t be a surpriseâ€”itâ€™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, theyâ€™re going to be displaying on 55â€ screens on the street. I hesitate to call it propaganda like Nick Pinto does. Itâ€™s more just potential embarrassment if I happen to walk past my local kiosk and see an ad for menâ€™s underwear, because I happened to be shopping for some the other night.
Of course, I can pay for internet service that isnâ€™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 canâ€™t afford high-speed internet access, or much of any internet access. If Iâ€™m going to assume my browsing with my pay ISP is secure and unmonitoredâ€”and thereâ€™s no reason to assume it isâ€”but why should privacy be a luxury product?
And believe you me, Sidewalk Labs, itself a subsidiary of Alphabet, nÃ©e Google, would like nothing more than for all of us to be hooked into their kiosks as the primary way we get online. Weâ€™re talking Gigabit speeds here. Iâ€™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 someoneâ€™s taxes pay for it via welfare programs and utility assistance, or you get your water shut off. The difference is that thereâ€™s no solution for ad-supported water in the home. Yet. (â€œBefore you take a shower, you need to watch this 30 second ad for Geico.â€)
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. Iâ€™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. Itâ€™s true, someoneâ€™s always going to pay. And whoever is paying is going to want a return on their investment.