Waiting to connect

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

Brad Amorosino


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.



"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.


If you don't want to use it - DON"T! Simple.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 21, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

and why would anyone need wi-fi in a park? The point of going to a park is to get away from it all, not take it with you.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 21, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

Providing connectivity throughout the City of San Francisco will be a big win for city government as well as its constituents!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 22, 2013 @ 7:29 am

You erroneously put Google's headquarters in Menlo Park. It's actually based in Mountain View.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 22, 2013 @ 10:50 am

Only fools think there is any privacy on the internet. Wake up!

Posted by Richmondman on Aug. 27, 2013 @ 10:24 am

I guess in this modern age where people are so accustomed to posting the most intimate details of their lives on "facebook," the idea of privacy may be somewhat "passe" but every time Google or Youtube tries to feed me something similar to something I looked at previously, I get the "willies."

Not only do I find it creepy that Google has been logging my ISP and amassing records of my search data, but their ostensible notion that just feeding me back that which I've already seen on the Internet seems massively counter to the whole idea behind the network.

All this vastness of information and discourse, but I'm limited to what Goog thinks I already know.


Results are in. Google *is* evil.


Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 27, 2013 @ 11:00 am

Again, it begs the question: If you find something "creepy," then why voluntarily subject yourself to it?

There is no requirement to use either Google or Youtube to access web pages or videos on the Internet. These services are convenient, but not required methods to find content on the Internet. There are many effective alternative search engines and plenty of other video hosting sites.

Google is pretty open about the fact that it searches your email, tracks your searches, etc. I agree these practices may be disconcerting, but if you know about them and continue to use the service, then they must not be too worrisome for you.

Posted by Chris on Aug. 27, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

The creep factor is just a part of it.

That's like if a casual acquaintance reveals themselves to be in possession of some minute details of your personal life or habits.

While the creepiness certainly does bring a sharp visceral reaction, the even more serious problem is the way Google's tracking and informational feed-back changes the nature of the Internet for the worse.

In giving a particular searcher more and more of the same things over and over again to help them "get what they want" more easily, Google converts the the wonderous semi-random nature of the Internet into something which is blindered and confining.

It's like the difference between an afternoon amid the books of the old library Main Branch Arts and Sciences stacks or getting stuck on a bus with a torn romance novel.

The new Google feels like getting a plastic bag stuck over your head.

That's why I put the URL for StartPage at the bottom of my last comment. One can get the "Goog-tube" through the ixquick.com proxy, but there is also the vimeo:

Finally, I would revise and amend my comment that "Google is evil."

I believe *saying* something is evil is the only true evil, and belated recognized that I had committed that sin.

When we say something is evil, it forecloses on the possibility of dialog or understanding. That *is* evil. Nonetheless, I'm really disappointed in the way this big googledy-eyed corporation to the south has developed its practices.

Posted by lillipublicans on Aug. 27, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

They are just as bad as any other data farmers out there.

Posted by Matlock on Aug. 27, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

I live about a block away from a rec center scheduled to provide wifi.Does anyone know if I can cancel my cable and receive the wifi?

Posted by Guest on Aug. 27, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

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