San Francisco Progressives Debate the Wi-Fi Plan

by Ben Malley on March 30, 2007

A discussion on the Google/Earthlink Wi-Fi proposal at Modern Times Bookstore seemed like it would be a night of progressive activists preaching to themselves about the horrors of the city’s plan – after moderator Annalee Newitz announced that not for lack of effort on her part, Google and Earthlink had both declined to send representatives.

But an unexpected proponent of the city’s plan emerged. Reverend Arnold Townsend of Bayview and Balboa High School teacher George Lee both argued in favor of the plan, citing the desperate need to address the digital divide.

On one side, panelists criticized the plan for its lack of privacy, inadequate technology, and said it didn’t do enough to address the digital divide. Rev. Townsend dismissed the privacy issues as “philosophical” in nature and said that immediacy of internet access for low income communities was the most important issue at stake.

“The Google/Earthlink plan is ‘free’ because it is based on targeted advertising,” said ACLU Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director Nicole Ozer. “When a corporation has your information it is no longer subject to the Fourth Amendment. The government simply needs a subpoena to access it.” According to the contract, said Ozer, only minimal information from the user will be collected – but “minimal” is not defined.

Eric Brooks of Our City agreed that the current Wi-Fi plan is a bad idea, but approached the problem from a technological viewpoint. “What this deal does is give Earthlink and Google a monopoly quasi-franchise that will own our front door to the internet here in San Francisco,” he said. Under the current plan, no competing wireless networks could be set up within the city because the 2.4 GHz frequency used for wireless would be saturated.

Users will also run into technological complications. Trying to get wireless reception indoors may be difficult. “If you’re going to build an outdoor network and use it indoors, well have fun,” said Bruce Wolfe of the San Francisco People’s Organization.

Those who live above the first floor in their apartment building – or have rooms that don’t face the street – will most likely need to buy a repeater to make the wireless work properly. For the low-income communities that are supposedly being addressed by this plan, the extra expense of a repeater would not be ideal.

In addition, he said, the proposed speed of the wireless – 300 kb – is “cheap and slow” and would not be able to adequately support most of today’s streaming video, let alone future technological innovations.

On the other side, a high school teacher and a reverend spoke from the heart about their daily experiences with communities who have little or no access to technology. Rev. Arnold Townsend said he had no doubt the plan would help improve the digital divide.

Teacher George Lee agreed with Townsend. After the panel had spent an hour discussing the technological drawbacks and privacy issues involved with the Wi-Fi plan, an obviously frustrated Lee said “This is becoming an intellectual exercise for people who already have access.”

This became the theme throughout the night. Lee and Townsend campaigned effectively and emotionally for some form of internet now. As Townsend said, “It doesn’t have to be pure. It just has to be practical.”

He likened the issue to the recent installation of security cameras around the city. Townsend told the story of a discussion with a group of mothers who had all lost a child to violence, who felt the cameras would make them safer. And while he opposed the idea of surveillance cameras politically, he knew they would help the community.

What was painfully evident was that all sides of the discussion cared deeply about policies for “digital inclusion” that would help to bridge the digital divide. However, it is obvious that there is little in the way of communication between those who work in low income communities everyday such as Townsend or Lee, and the “experts” on the panel of issues involving technological and privacy.

After Ozer said the poor shouldn’t have to sacrifice their right to privacy for the internet, Townsend responded by asking why he should listen to her – and how she knew what was best for his community.

It seems that a lot more communication is needed on this issue to establish trust between progressives who don’t want to see San Francisco sell its soul to Earthlink/Google – and progressives who want to see the growing problem of the digital divide addressed now.

Send feedback to bmalley@sfsu.edu

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