Google Wi-Fi Bid Lacking in Privacy, Speed, Digital Divide Elements

by Media Alliance on April 7, 2006

Media Alliance joined with numerous other organizations to urge City officials to press for stronger public interest provisions in light of yesterday’s announcement that Google/ Earthlink won the bidding process to build a citywide Wi-fi network. The bid by media darling Google, owned by close friends of Mayor Newsom, was rated poorly on “right to privacy” considerations and connection speed, and lacked funding for bridging the digital divide.

“It may make for sexy headlines, but as it stands, the Google/ Earthlink proposal is really bad policy. Public ownership is the way to go, but if the City is set on moving forward with another franchise, they definitely have to get tough in the coming negotiations to address some major gaps. Google has the deepest pockets of all the bidders but came up empty-handed in offering any resources for a “digital inclusion fund” for programs to bridge the digital divide – and remember, this was the City’s stated rationale for the entire wireless project,” commented Jeff Perlstein, Executive Director of Media Alliance, a thirty year-old nonprofit advocating for the public interest in media policy.

The lack of mention of digital inclusion funding in the bid was particularly surprising since Earthlink has been hailed as a leader in this area. This reputation largely stems from the company’s agreement with Philadelphia to provide 10,000 free computers for low- income residents and 5% of ongoing project revenue to a nonprofit created by the City to focus on digital inclusion activities, such as free computer training, tech assistance and community media production. San Francisco has not established a similar nonprofit entity.

“Frankly we’re disappointed,” said Sydney Levy, Program Director of Media Alliance and coordinator of the Internet 4 Everyone coalition. “Earthlink’s digital inclusion provisions in Philadelphia should set the baseline for a cutting edge and diverse city like San Francisco, not an unattainable ceiling. The City needs to ensure the two deep- pocketed companies profiting from this arrangement pay their fair share back into our community. Without such funding committed up front, the Mayor’s words about bridging the digital divide are likely to remain just that – words.”

Earlier in the day yesterday, the “right to privacy” provisions of the Google/Earthlink proposal received low marks in a report released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) . The evaluation found that the bid by SF Metro Connect was clearly more protective of privacy than the other five that were submitted. Unlike the other proposals, SF Metro Connect didn’t propose to commercialize users’ data by monitoring them. The bid was a collaboration between IBM, Cisco Systems and Seakay Partners. Read the full report at http://www.epic.org/privacy/internet/sfan4306.html

The EFF/EPIC report also affirms Media Alliance’s research concluding that the connection speed for the “free”service proposed by Google/ Earthlink – 300 kilobits per second – puts it in the bottom half of the bids.

View Media Alliance’s chart comparing the six bids (http://action.media-alliance.org/article.php?id=243) and more background information at http://www.media-alliance.org.

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