Is Digital Racial Profiling on Tap?

A couple weeks ago I moderated a panel discussion about free wireless Internet access in San Francisco. Speakers included people who work on tech projects for the city, activists from impoverished neighborhoods, and civil liberties wonks. Their concerns were centered on the specifics of the San Francisco wi-fi deal, but could easily translate to the many cities across the U.S. where citizens are contemplating how to implement city-wide, no-cost wi-fi. In the case of San Francisco, wi-fi will probably come from a third party: EarthLink has submitted a contract to the city, offering to blanket the region with free wi-fi under certain conditions.

One of those conditions is that anyone who wants high-speed access will have to pay roughly $25 per month for it. So the only free wi-fi will be slow and spotty. Another condition is that Google will provide the software side of this free wi-fi network, potentially serving up location-based ads and keeping track of where people are when they log on the network.

A few minutes after panelists started discussing the EarthLink deal, a debate emerged over whether San Francisco should accept the contract with EarthLink as is or try to change some of the terms. Nicole Ozer from the American Civil Liberties Union was lobbying for more privacy-friendly provisions such as the ones EarthLink included in its contract with Portland; technical experts Tim Pozar and Bruce Wolfe wanted terms that promised better technical infrastructure. While their requests seemed reasonable to the geeks in the room, local teacher George Lee and African American community activist Reverend Arnold Townsend disagreed.

"What you don't seem to understand," Lee said, "is that there are people in this city right now who don't have any access to computers at all. They don't know how to use Google or where to buy a USB drive. They can't do their homework or apply for jobs because they don't have Internet access. These people don't care about being 'pure.' They just need to get online." Townsend echoed Lee's sentiments, arguing that changing EarthLink's contract would only delay much-needed high-tech resources for people in low-income areas in San Francisco -- areas that are also heavily populated by blacks and other people of color.

Townsend said the concerns of civil liberties activists sounded to him like ideological quibbling. He added that Pozar's and Wolfe's suggestions for different technological approaches would just take longer and keep members of his community offline. Addressing the techies on the panel, Lee's former student Chris Green said, "It's like somebody is bleeding to death, but instead of giving him a tourniquet you're saying that you'll drive him to the hospital where you have really great facilities."

Ozer and others pointed out that asking EarthLink for better contractual terms isn't likely to slow the wi-fi rollout in the city. The Board of Supervisors still needs to deliberate on the contract, and it could be more than a year before the supervisors accept the contract even if they don't ask for changes. Plus, EarthLink's technology may not serve the low-income communities. Wi-fi signals have a hard time traveling through walls and may not reach above the second floor on most buildings. It's possible that EarthLink is courting low-income groups with promises of free wi-fi that the company can't actually deliver.

Just for the sake of argument, however, let's assume that EarthLink does manage to deliver wi-fi to low-income communities and that members of those communities can afford to get wi-fi-ready computers. Given that there are so few privacy protections in the EarthLink contract, I worry that we may close one digital divide only to open another.

Already, it's easy for a company like Google to track what users do online and sell that information to the highest bidder. What happens when companies link that capability with the ability to know where users are physically when they log onto the wi-fi network? We might see a new era in racial profiling, where Google or companies like it sell information to police about what people in black neighborhoods are searching for online. If anybody does a suspicious search for "drugs" or "the Nation of Islam," that person could easily become the object of a fishing expedition by police.

There are many software tools that people use to protect their privacy online, but will impoverished people on the free wi-fi network know about them or be able to use them over slow connections? The new digital divide won't be between people who can get online and those who can't; instead, it will be between people who can afford to create privacy for themselves on the Web and those who don't have the resources to do it.

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