Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"The Dark Side of Muni-Wi-Fi"

The FierceWiFi e-newsletter - an excellent, free resource - carried this article on the "The dark side of muni-WiFi":

At times we should look a gift horse in the mouth. There is a rush of municipalities across the U.S. and Europe looking to develop free or low-cost WiFi zones. The goal is to provide the residents of these cities with always-on, high-speed Internet access. Leaders of cities say that creating these city-wide WiFi zones is not only vital for economic development and public safety, but they help insure that the digital divide between rich and poor is eliminated, or at least narrowed...

These benefits notwithstanding, critics charge that there is no such thing as a free digital lunch. They say that the proliferation of muni-WiFi helps spur the growth of a mobile marketing ecosystem, an emerging field of electronic commerce which is expected to generate huge revenues for Google, Microsoft, AT&T, and other large companies. City residents will find themselves surrounded by a ubiquitous online environment which will follow them with ads and information dovetailed to their interests and their geographic location. Unless municipal leaders object, these critics say, citizens and visitors will be subjected to intensive data-mining of their Web searches, email messages and other online activities as they 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.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy says that instead of creating yet another e-commerce stomping ground, San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities should understand that real alternatives do exist to the corporate model of municipal-WiFi being promoted by Google and its cohorts. It is possible to develop community networks that reflect the right to personal privacy, and the cost of building such networks can be very low. There are already successful publicly supported models. St. Cloud, FL, a city of 30,000, has built a free WiFi service for its residents as an important public service. The city has been able to build and operate the network, reduce its telecommunications costs and generate new economic opportunities.


See Jeff Chester's Media Alliance analysis of wi-fi marketing ecosystems.

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