Critics hit SF Wi-Fi plan on privacy, interference

Google has said it will erase the user's Web-surfing data after using it to target ads, but privacy watchdogs say it represents a bad trade-off for users

San Francisco's choice of Google and EarthLink to build a citywide Wi-Fi network is likely to interfere with some residents' privacy and many Wi-Fi users' radio signals, critics of the plan said this week.

However, there is still time for public input and changes to the project, said Ron Vinson, chief administrative officer and deputy director of the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS).

Last Wednesday, a city review panel picked the Google-EarthLink plan from six proposals to provide wireless Internet access throughout most of the city. Google and EarthLink's plan would provide a free, citywide Wi-Fi service at about 300K bps (bits per second) and a 1G bps service for about US$20 per month. The free service would include online ads targeted at particular customers based on what Web sites they used and where they were located at a given time, according to the companies' proposal.

DTIS is now forming a team to negotiate with the companies and hopes to begin talks soon, Vinson said. Aspects of the plan will have to go before several public agencies, including the city's planning commission and public utilities commission, and details of the plan could be changed, he said. The city will turn to the second-place finisher if the parties can't reach a deal. The final deal will go to a vote before the Board of Supervisors, which governs the combined city and county.

"We are in the very early stages of the planning process and look forward to collaborating with the City of SF and EarthLink to work out the details of the offering," Google said in a written statement.

Still, the companies' proposal has caused some jitters. Even though Google has said it will erase the user's Web-surfing data after using it to choose ads, the free service represents a bad trade-off for users, said Chris Hoofnagle, director and senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

"Google wants to provide just a trickle of Internet service in exchange for individuals' privacy," Hoofnagle said. He's concerned about "mission creep" that might take the system beyond its initial use for advertising. He compared it to Google's system for interpreting the content of e-mail messages.

"A technology that can analyze content at that level invites secondary uses, whether it's law enforcement or national security," Hoofnagle said. If it can be used for advertising, a judge might determine it could be used for official purposes as well, he said.

EPIC hopes to ensure that the network providers are forced to comply with the Cable TV Privacy Act of 1984, because it would make them notify a consumer before turning over personally identifiable information to the government. There are some exceptions, such as for emergencies and terrorism investigations, Hoofnagle added. The group also wants the companies to commit to erasing user location information, something they haven't clearly done, he said.

"We need to see where we can get more movement out of Google on these issues," Hoofnagle said.

Interference may be an even more widespread worry, according to Ralf Muehlen, director of SFLAN, a free, nonprofit Wi-Fi network in the city. The Google/EarthLink network is likely to swamp the city so that home and office Wi-Fi networks slow down and cordless phone call quality suffers, he said.

The companies made this more likely by proposing a network that's almost entirely wireless, including wireless "backhaul" links from access points to the Internet, all running on either the unlicensed 900MHz radio band and the two bands used for Wi-Fi, Muehlen said. The companies could avoid that problem by reaching the Internet over fiber-optic cable that the city already owns and isn't using to nearly its capacity, he said. Vinson acknowledged the city owns fiber in the ground.


Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.