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.