The digital gold rush is on across America, as cities scramble to develop free or low-cost Wi-Fi zones. These public on-ramps to the Internet are designed to provide every citizen with a form of always-on, high-speed Internet access–at the playground, in the office or at home–at low or no cost.
Dozens of communities large and small, in red states and blue, are either planning or currently constructing Wi-Fi systems. Community leaders–from Philadelphia; Houston; Columbia, South Carolina; and San Francisco, to name a few–recognize that creating a citywide Wi-Fi zone is not only vital for economic development and public safety but helps insure that Americans who can’t now afford digital communications on their own can also tap in to the riches and convenience of the Internet. But there is no such thing as a free digital lunch.
Consumers and public officials should have no illusions that what is being touted as a public benefit is also designed to spur the growth of a mobile marketing ecosystem, an emerging field of electronic commerce that is expected to generate huge revenues for Google, Microsoft, AT&T and many others. Soon, wherever we wander, a ubiquitous online environment will follow us with ads and information dovetailed to our interests and our geographic location.
Unless municipal leaders object, citizens and visitors will be subjected to intensive data-mining of their web searches, e-mail messages and other online activities are tracked, profiled and targeted. The inevitable consequences are an erosion of online privacy, potential new threats of surveillance by law enforcement agencies and private parties, and the growing commercialization of culture.
Mining Your Data
Consider the application submitted to the City of San Francisco in February by search giant Google and its partner, the Internet service provider Earthlink. One of six Wi-Fi bids being considered by the City of San Francisco, the Google/Earthlink plan has attracted the most attention. Under this proposal, Google would provide a free but relatively low-speed Internet service available throughout the city (Earthlink would operate a higher-speed service on the same system charging users $20 a month). The costs of operating the “free” service would be offset by Google’s plans to use the network to promote its interactive advertising services.
Everyone who uses the Google network would first be directed to a portal page, where they would be offered an array of what Google terms “personalized consumer products.” Through those products and other technologies, Google plans, according to its proposal, to “target advertisements to specific geographical locations and to user interests.”
What this means is that Google and Earthlink plan to use online files (known as cookies) and other data-collection techniques to profile users and deliver precise, personalized advertising as they surf the Internet. (Earthlink is working with the interactive ad company DoubleClick, which collects and analyzes enormous amounts of information online to engage in individual interactive ad targeting.)