Privacy advocates and activists for digital inclusion were set to raise alarms about San Francisco’s proposed wireless broadband service at a hearing Friday afternoon before a city oversight body.
The winning proposal for the citywide network, made by Google and EarthLink, would allow for invasion of users’ privacy and doesn’t include any funding to help make digital technology and the Internet accessible to lower income people, critics have charged. The companies still need to negotiate a final contract with the city, and the activists aim to affect what goes into that deal — or make the city change course and adopt a municipally-owned network.
The city sought proposals last year for a wireless network that would reach most of the city for outdoor and some indoor use. Google and EarthLink’s response called for a free 300Kbps (bit-per-second) service supported by location-based advertising and a faster paid service. In early April, it was the plan picked to go forward into contract negotiations.
At a hearing last month before the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), an oversight body for the combined City and County of San Francisco, city activists and other speakers raised concerns about a lack of public input and the technical effectiveness of the design. The group put off talk about privacy and inclusion until Friday’s meeting in order to have enough time for input.
Privacy concerns have been raised since last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, whose worries weren’t eased by the city’s choice of Google and EarthLink. The companies’ plan scored low when the groups measured privacy aspects of all the proposed systems.
In an April 19 letter to the city, the groups charged that users of the free service will have to give an e-mail address and sign in for every session, which would allow Google and EarthLink to track individual users over time. Google has committed to only keeping user information for 180 days or less, but EarthLink has not, they said. The groups want both vendors to commit to a data retention schedule.
In addition, both companies would make users “opt out” of letting the companies sell information about them. The groups want them to use an “opt-in” system instead. They also cautioned that the city should demand Google and EarthLink agree to fair procedures for answering requests for user information by law enforcement and others, and keep tight controls on public video-surveillance systems that are proposed to be connected to the network.
Advocates of closing the “digital divide” will also raise issues Friday that they think should be included in the negotiations, said Sydney Levy, program director at Media Alliance in nearby Oakland, California, who will be speaking at the hearing. Media Alliance and other groups want commitments to future upgrades to the 300K bps free service as technology advances, as well as funding for computers, training and ways to provide local information within neighborhoods.
“There’s no point in talking about it later; we need to talk while or before they negotiate,” Levy said. “Up until now, it’s been very frustrating.”
Representatives of Google and the city were not immediately available for comment.
“Now’s the time for these groups to state their concerns and have the folks that we’re going to negotiate with bring these issues up,” said EarthLink spokesman Jerry Grasso. Negotiations have not yet begun, he added.