Waiting to connect

Years after a failed privatization scheme, SF is letting Google create its municipal Wi-Fi system

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Brad Amorosino

news@sfbg.com

Eight years ago, San Francisco almost gave away an enormously lucrative public utility to Google and Earthlink: a citywide Wi-Fi connection. The hastily drawn up plan was championed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom after a Google executive pitched him on the idea of citywide wireless Internet access at a dinner party.

Google's Wi-Fi scheme would have blanketed the city with coverage, but it would also have required users to obtain Google accounts to sign in, thereby facilitating the company's vacuum-like data harvesting practices that suck up everything from search queries and emails to the geographic locations of smartphones and tablets. Google's Wi-Fi plan would have allowed the tech giant to insert "prioritized placement" of ads and brands into a Wi-Fi user's feed, limiting choice of content through profit-driven algorithms.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, ACLU of Northern California, Electronic Privacy Information Center, and we at the Bay Guardian all criticized the plan (see "Tech Disconnect," 11/9/05). Earthlink, Google's partner in the privatization deal, nearly went bankrupt in 2007 and the company bailed on the Wi-Fi proposal. That was the end of the city's first Wi-Fi scheme. Thousands of free networks in cafes and hotels popped up in the meantime, leading many to question the purpose of building municipal Wi-Fi.

But municipal Wi-Fi is back. Sup. Mark Farrell and Mayor Ed Lee announced recently that free Wi-Fi is coming to 31 San Francisco parks. Google is involved yet again, but officials in the city's Department of Technology say that the network will be not be controlled by Google, nor directly susceptible to privacy invasions by the "don't be evil" company or its affiliates. In short, it will be a public utility.

 

PUBLIC UTILITY

"I think a lot of the prior debate around free Wi-Fi in San Francisco that never moved forward was because of different questions around business models," Farrell told us. "To emphasize, this is a free gift [from Google] of financial benefit to the city of San Francisco with no strings attached."

For the parks, Google has agreed to give a $600,000 contribution to fund Wi-Fi installation and two years of operation. Farrell said this is the company's only role. There will be no Google hardware or software allowing the company to devour user data or steer traffic.

San Francisco's reinvigorated push to build out public Wi-Fi comes just as major telecom companies and Internet giants like Google are again targeting large Wi-Fi networks for privatization. In the late 2000s, many tech companies abandoned Wi-Fi services as unprofitable. Telecom companies were busy expanding their cellphone infrastructure.

But thanks to the proliferation and technical advances of smartphones, cellular networks are now choking on megabits of traffic. Telecom companies see Wi-Fi as a means of offloading mobile traffic onto broadband infrastructure. Google and other companies see Wi-Fi networks as vast troves of consumer data, and airwaves on which to advertise.

Google's grant for Wi-Fi in San Francisco's parks comes after months of bad press for the company and the tech sector, including revelations that all of Silicon Valley's top companies readily cooperated with the NSA's electronic surveillance programs.

Google also recently paid out $7 million to settle state investigations into its "Wi-Spy" data collection activities: wireless receivers hidden in Google's Street View vehicles sopped up communications data, including passwords and even email content, from millions of networks in the United States and Europe. Beside Google's numerous spying scandals, the company has also come under criticism for aggressively avoiding federal taxes, and locally for its impact on San Francisco's transportation and housing problems.