NYC Kills Internet Browsing At Free WiFi Kiosks After The City's Homeless Actually Use It

from the better-neither-seen-nor-heard dept

Earlier this year, New York City undertook one of the biggest free city WiFi efforts ever conceived. Under the plan, an outfit by the name of LinkNYC is slated to install some 7,500 WiFi kiosks scattered around the five boroughs that will provide free gigabit WiFi (well, closer to 300 Mbps or so), free phone calls to anywhere in the country (via Vonage), as well as access to a device recharging station, 311, 911, 411 and city services (via an integrated Android tablet). The connectivity and services are supported by a rotating crop of ads displayed on the kiosks themselves.

The only problem? As part of the initiative, the city and LinkNYC attached an Android-powered tablet that lets anyone browse the internet for as long as they wanted. This, as you might expect, has resulted in some people camping out for long periods of time actually using the free service. That includes, unsurprisingly, New York City's ample homeless population. As Motherboard notes in a report, after spending much of August tracking usage of the kiosks, a snapshot view of daily use doesn't make for shiny marketing fodder:
"My small sample of Link users that Saturday afternoon suggests these kiosks are indeed mostly used by the city’s least privileged. Of the 15 people I saw using a Link, only two or three of them would be likely to appear on LinkNYC promotional materials (i.e., one well-dressed woman making a phone call, or one middle aged, casually-dressed tourist waiting for his phone to finish charging).
Again, this shouldn't really be surprising, especially since the city has consistently claimed that one of its goals is to close the digital divide. Since June there has also been a lot of breathless hysteria about the fact that some of the homeless users have been using the tablets to watch porn. In response, LinkNYC began implementing internet filters that, as internet filters tend to do, didn't seem to work.

Responding to public complaints, LinkNYC announced this week that it would be discontinuing tablet browsing functionality at the kiosks:
"...Some users have been monopolizing the Link tablets and using them inappropriately, preventing others from being able to use them while frustrating the residents and businesses around them. The kiosks were never intended for anyone’s extended, personal use and we want to ensure that Links are accessible and a welcome addition to New York City neighborhoods.
The announcement notes that the internet browsing will be disabled, but other services will still work:
"Starting today, we will be removing web browsing on all Link tablets while we work with the City and community to explore potential solutions, like time limits. Other tablet features—free phone calls, maps, device charging, and access to 311 and 911—will continue to work as they did before, and nothing is changing about LinkNYC’s superfast Wi-Fi. As planned, we will continue to improve the Link experience and add new features for people to enjoy while they’re on the go."
While countless news stories suggest that the move was primarily in response to overwhelming porn consumption, there's no real evidence that this was an epidemic of any real scale. While there have certainly been documented instances of public masterbation at the kiosks (this is NYC after all, and occasionally viewing a homeless person's gentials is not a new concept), LinkNYC has suggested that people camping out around the kiosks (sometimes bringing chairs, couches and crates with them) was the larger source of complaints by locals.

The real problem appears to be that the service put the city's homeless population on stark display, making them more difficult for city residents to ignore. On one hand it's understandable that homeless populations camping around the kiosks isn't great "optics" or olfactory ambiance for the city and local business owners, but at the same time it's not clear what one expects to happen when you provide the city's 60,000 homeless residents with free access to technology they otherwise lack access to. LinkNYC says it's working with the city on a solution, and may restore public browsing at a later date with tougher filters and access limitations in place. Given the fact that filters historically don't work, it seems more likely that the free browsing will be gone for good.

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  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 8:32am

    20 years ago it was common to see Usenet hissy fits about the internet being used for *business*. "That's not what it's for!"

    Now it's business's turn.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 8:35am

    Google's involvement

    Google (Alphabet) is involved in LinkNYC through its Sidewalk Labs.
    It is essentially just a big offline advertisement platform.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 8:36am

    The servant waits while the, uh... masterbates?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 8:39am

    Well, where do homeless people otherwise hang out? Why not provide free wifi access points there too?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    kallethen, 16 Sep 2016 @ 8:45am

    Obviously, the people behind LinkNYC never saw "Avenue Q."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 9:15am

    The question I would have is how do homeless people have money for tablets?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 9:17am

      Re:

      The kiosks themselves had the tablets.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 9:24am

      Re:

      A tablet is cheaper than a home or than rent.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 9:27am

      Re:

      There's an Android tablet built into the kiosk.

      In any case there's a whole lot of people upgrading to new smartphones and tablets every day. The old devices have only a pittance for trade-in value. And so they're handed off to friends and relatives who otherwise can't afford them.

      Trickle-down economics, just like Reagan promised!
      /s

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    richard johnson, 16 Sep 2016 @ 9:24am

    equal access

    Why should sex only be for people like the Clintons?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    a, 16 Sep 2016 @ 10:29am

    help

    I can't find "masterbate" in my dictionary.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 10:39am

    Maybe the city shouldn't be spending tax money to provide porn stations for the homeless throughout the city. I know, I'm a real reactionary.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 10:54am

      Re:

      And then again: maybe it should. It's a safe alternative to drugs, and probably cheaper than needle stations. They just have to work on installation locations.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        David (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 11:22am

        Re: Re:

        And a sprinkler system to hose them down afterwards.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 12:04pm

        Re: Re:

        Funny, I don't recall the saying being sex or drugs or rock and roll.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        trollificus (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 9:04pm

        Re: Re:

        "Alternative"?? Why would you think any of the homeless who have drug problems* would change that just because they suddenly have pr0n to whack off to?

        *-"homeless drug problem", funds inadequate to obtain desired quantity of drugs. (sry, but I've worked with homeless folks)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Sep 2016 @ 7:27am

        Re: Re:

        I agree. Offer people a safer alternative to worse alternatives as a means of entertainment and it will draw people away from the worse alternatives.

        Not only that but, if anything, getting their mind active with things like online games, Youtube, web browsing and reading the news and education and reading blogs, social network is keeping their minds active which is even arguably better than doing nothing and not keeping their minds active. Probably cheaper and more effective than rehab programs.

        I think it's a good idea. I guess that means the government won't even bother, if there is no more war on drugs what would their justification be for having too many police officers, the DEA and too many other federal agencies, too many jails, etc... To jail all those responsible for robbing customers at Wells Fargo? No, better to have jails full of the wrong people instead so that you can ignore the banks and other white collar criminals when they rob customers and the public and claim that our jails are already too full so we should just let these white collar criminals go.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 12:02pm

      Re:

      I thought this was ad-supported and managed by a private company.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 16 Sep 2016 @ 10:39am

    News Flash!

    Free internet access used by people without internet access!


    How could anyone set one of these up and not expect this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 11:07am

    Because homeless people don't have the normal urges and needs everybody else does. Shoo, shoo, you are polluting our view! /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 11:41am

    Think of the homeless... Oops!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 12:25pm

    Wait, what, those tablets could also access non-porn content?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 12:33pm

    It's probably cheaper for the City to provide Internet to the homeless.

    If you think about in terms of medical costs averted alone, your talking about a pretty significant ROI.

    A while back over a weekend I sliced my hand pretty good in my shop. I was screwed because the ER would charge a few hundred bucks PER STITCH to do what any sailor or seamstress could do. And that was coming out of MY deductible, which DOUBLED thanks to Obamacare.

    So instead I watched some youtube videos and sutured my own hand with some boiled thread and a set of pliars soaked in alcohol. Spent a grand total of about fifty cents.

    My expectation is that homeless Internet is often used for things like this. And the billable hours that are averted because of it probably save the city more than they spend on providing the service.

    BTW, I wouldn't advise doing what I did unless it is pretty minor. In my case, I needed stitches because the slice was in an area that flexes a lot, not because it was a really big wound.

    I'm sure this story is not unique. And it says something that a person who supposedly HAS healthcare would rather do surgery on themselves, than deal with our fucked up health care system.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 19 Sep 2016 @ 7:34am

      Re: It's probably cheaper for the City to provide Internet to the homeless.

      Erm... is this a good time to point out that if you walked into an NHS hospital over here they'd sort you out and send you home without charging you at all?

      Your situation is the result of Red Scare politics in which anything paid for by taxes that benefits the public is considered SOCIALIST! Run for your lives!!!1OneEleven!

      I've been told (by a libertarian, no less!) that extending Medicaid to all is the solution. So, if y'all can give up getting all paranoid about people you don't approve of getting medical attention free at the point of delivery, you can look forward to a 21st century high-standard heathlcare system, but that depends on actually implementing Andrew's idea. If idiot-ology is really all that's stopping this from being done, I say ditch it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 1:01pm

    Easy filter

    Block three things and you can cripple the "bad" uses:

    HTTPS (because you cannot tell what is behind the encryption)
    Images (because image porn is more popular and easier to enjoy)
    Javascript (because the site could use it to play tricks to avoid the image block)

    This will break some legitimate sites, but having some things broken is better than having no connectivity at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Skeeter, 16 Sep 2016 @ 3:44pm

    Clear as Mud

    So, are they taking their 'free tablets' away, or are they disabling WiFi? The article is about as clear as a Clinton saying 'I absolute, positively never did .

    I mean, they say 'they still have excellent WiFi' leaves you wondering if they're just playing 'give-and-take' with the homeless wanking crowd (not Bill, of course, who has several homes).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Whatever (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 5:46pm

    I knew you would get the story wrong.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Whatever (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 5:54pm

    I knew you would get the story wrong.

    Karl, I knew you would punt the story into the weeds. Too busy trying to get a headline and too little time spent trying to understand the problem.

    To start with, the WiFi kioskes have a built in tablet (explaining how the homeless have tablets). While the original intention was for a tourist or whatever to be able to check a map or quickly pick up their hotmail, it instead turned into a place where people would stay for hours, playing games, watching videos, movies, and yes... porn. A side problem of course is that some people like to enjoy porn as an immersive experience, so they were pleasuring themselves in full public view.

    The more significant issue is that with powerful and relatively quick wifi, people would gather around the immediate area to surf the web. Sort of the original intention, until they are dragging out benches, old sofas, chairs, and the like to sit in the middle of the sidewalk for hours enjoying the internet. Add in people illegally parking their cars (to get close enough for wifi) and the like, and you have significant neighborhood disruption.

    Oh yeah, don't forget that you can add in loud voices, yelling, drug and alcohol consumption, fighting, and all the other stuff that comes when you get a lot of people in one place being themselves with no consideration for anyone else.

    In some areas, homeless were moving in and setting up camp around the wifi spots so they could use them continuously... and use the charging features and such as well. Let's just say a really good idea instead was most appealing to the wrong people and they way the wifi kioskes were used was not to the benefit of the neighborhoods in question.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 6:21pm

      Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

      How dare the homeless use wifi, they are supposed to be looking for a job .....

      Ahhh - Just a sec ... I'm being informed that the only way to get many jobs is via online application.

      Never mind

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Whatever (profile), 16 Sep 2016 @ 10:41pm

        Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

        You are a pretty bad troll.

        It's not that the homeless shouldn't use WiFi - it's just that wifi delivered in this manner is causing unforeseen results that are not good for the overall society.

        Moreover, read my comments: It's not just about homeless. Others are congregating to enjoy free unlimited Wifi - to the point of dragging out seats and such and turning the sidewalk into a living room - again to the determent of the neighborhood as a whole.

        But hey, thanks for playing "I'm a crappy troll", your score isn't high enough to win a prize.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 17 Sep 2016 @ 7:27am

          Re: Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

          Troll?
          Hmmm, the point was salient enough to garner a response.

          It has been pointed out that libraries provide free access to the web, while this it true in some areas - some localities have been blocking the homeless from libraries.

          So, how are they supposed to find the work that everyone is telling them that they need to find? And yes .. I realize that many of them do not want to work, what about the few that do want to get out of the gutters? I'm not saying these kiosks are the answer, just asking questions - sota like Fox News - lol

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 17 Sep 2016 @ 5:05pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

            You should keep in mind that New York is not quite the same as say, Seattle or LA. New York is literally physically brutal for the homeless. It snows, it gets insanely hot, it rains frequently, and the locals are not nearly as kind.

            The people living on the streets there usually have other serious mental health issues. There are shelters and means to get out of bad situations, there are alternatives to 'find a jerb'. That's not to say they're homeless by choice, but that the ones living on the streets are usually doing so because they need more help than just free internet access to become even remotely functional.

            Some localities block access to libraries to the homeless, but NYC in particular is not one of them. Just try a google search for "NYC banning homeless from libraries" and you get an entirely opposite set of results.

            Also, many homeless shelters offer up internet access for the explicit reason of accessing government services, job hunting and communication with family members. They're just supervised by people that don't let them get used for jack-off booths.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          PaulT (profile), 17 Sep 2016 @ 3:19pm

          Re: Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

          "You are a pretty bad troll."

          Yo know, words have meanings. It's very strange that you keep misusing this one. I'm guessing it's because you keep getting called one correctly, so your fragile ego demands you call others the same name, no matter inappropriately?

          "But hey, thanks for playing "I'm a crappy troll", your score isn't high enough to win a prize."

          Well, nobody will beat your score in that contest.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 17 Sep 2016 @ 5:01am

        Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

        To be fair, there are places with active security where people can go to use things like a computer. I believe they're called libraries. You know those relics?

        The problem isn't that there's people using a computer or the internet. It's that there's people setting up camp around one that has no security or public sanitation monitor.

        There is no kiosk semen-removal attendant at these things.

        So yeah, it's pretty fair and reasonable to remove a function from a thing when the function wasn't being used for it's originally intended purpose, the occasional bit of life-necessary internet access.

        They at least tried. They probably expected this, but they acted in good faith by at least trying to see if people could handle having an unsupervised internet connected device without regular reports of public spanking.

        The answer turned out to be no. Big surprise.

        At least it's not Comcast or Verizon coming by to fuck it up for everyone for a change.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 17 Sep 2016 @ 7:42am

          Re: Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

          They can simply pass a no loitering law or something or pass a 20 min limit hangout time law like you have with parking and make it illegal to put your tables and chairs around it or figure out how to structure the laws around what can and can't be done around these things to reduce the problem.

          Then provide alternative access points elsewhere as well.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 17 Sep 2016 @ 5:12pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

            You're talking about a police force that can barely handle the simple act of not patting down black people all day.

            Do you really think they can responsibly enforce a law that prevents people from standing around a high traffic area?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Whatever (profile), 19 Sep 2016 @ 5:30am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

              More important, I think, is that it's not a question of needing more rules or more enforcement. That stick is perhaps a little worn out, and needed in more important places.

              I think the answer is people, and their own self control. There is an insane undercurrent of "all for me and f-ck everyone else" that permeates much the American mindset. Someone flipping over a newspaper box and using it to sit in front of the free internet terminal for hours has issues, plain and simple. It's not just an internet thing, but rather a whole right and wrong, living in society thing.

              There is no real good answer for that stuff. The only real answer is to remove whatever it is that is leading to the behavior. Making the internet terminals less friendly and less useful in certain ways sucks, but it's a perfect example of "why we can't have nice things".

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 19 Sep 2016 @ 10:56am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

                "The only real answer is to remove whatever it is that is leading to the behavior."

                Oh - are you referring to the removal of funding for mental health?

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2016 @ 11:13pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

                Said the guy demanding for more surveillance and less police oversight.

                Pot, kettle.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 17 Sep 2016 @ 7:38am

      Re: I knew you would get the story wrong.

      "To start with, the WiFi kioskes have a built in tablet (explaining how the homeless have tablets)."

      Thank you for pointing out what was already pointed out in the article. In the article

      "and city services (via an integrated Android tablet)."

      The rest of your post doesn't add anything new either. It's either simply repeating what the article already says or repeating the points of view within the comments. Either way you haven't shown that Karl doesn't understand the issue.

      and part of this discussion is so that we can get a wider point of view exactly so that we can better understand the issue, it consequences, and perhaps how to best resolve it and what are the possible consequences of various proposed resolutions (not that you have contributed anything to that end of course). That's kinda the point of this blog. Instead of acting like a child and claiming that Karl doesn't understand the article (and then following that up with the rest of your comment that contributes absolutely nothing new) why not just be more polite about how you present your point of view.

      and perhaps you should actually read the article before commenting. and then read the comments.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2016 @ 5:56pm

    Probably for the best

    LinkNYC had MAJOR privacy issues.
    Here's to a fresh start and (yes it's a moonshot) a 1Gb municipal broadband network in NYC.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    A Noncow, 17 Sep 2016 @ 3:25am

    John Young's take on the kiosks

    John Young (Cryptome.org) has a lot of interesting notions about the kiosks, not all of them pretty: https://cryptome.org/2016/07/Cryptome-LinkNYC-Beta-Report-16-0724.pdf

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Sep 2016 @ 4:42am

    > masterbation

    Really, Techdirt?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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