Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg

Building a Smart City? Have You Thought About Porn and Privacy?

A novel campaign to sprinkle the Big Apple with internet kiosks is knocked off course by predictable pitfalls.

New York City’s experiment to let people browse the internet from public terminals on city streets has ended, at least for now. On Wednesday, the operator of the terminals said it was removing their web browsing capabilities, saying people were monopolizing the kiosks and using them to look at content that wasn’t appropriate for public viewing.

The setback speaks to how difficult it is to create a new form of privately run digital infrastructure in the country’s biggest city. 

The project, known as LinkNYC, began four years ago when the city government asked for proposals to re-imagine its pay phones. Demand had dropped, and many of the phones had been removed. The remaining structures served largely as places for people to enjoy a toke or urinate with semi-discretion.  

The phone booths still had their virtues. Occasionally, for instance, they served as pop-up book exchanges. More to the point, they provided almost $20 million in annual revenue to the city, mostly through display advertising. Officials wanted to replace them with something that would provide a more relevant service and a steady flow of cash. After an open competition, the city signed a long-term deal with CityBridge, a consortium of companies led by Sidewalk Labs, a startup owned by Alphabet Inc. and run by Dan Doctoroff, the former chief executive officer of Bloomberg LP.

CityBridge set out to build tall, skinny structures that would emit free Wi-Fi signals, allowing even people who didn’t have a quarter to make phone calls, charge mobile gadgets, and provide embedded tablets for web surfing. The Links would also display ads, and CityBridge promised to split at least $500 million in revenue with the city over the ensuing 12 years.  

The first kiosks went up in January. There are about 400 LinkNYC terminals in the city, and CityBridge said over 475,00 people have signed up to use them. But it became apparent that CityBridge wasn’t fully prepared for the potential hurdles. Homeless people began hanging out near the Links, sometimes for hours, sometimes bringing their own chairs. Doing so didn’t actually break any city laws, so there was little to be done. People also began blasting music from the installations at night and otherwise bothering people who lived nearby. CityBridge attempted to head off these problems by limiting the volume of the kiosks and dimming the lights of their screens after dark. 

Then there was the smut. It didn’t take long for people to realize that they could use the tablets to look at it, much to the delight of the New York Post. “Horny homeless men use Times Square Wi-Fi to watch porn,” read one headline in June. CityBridge’s first step was to install OpenDNS web filtering, software used by schools and libraries to block obscene material. This worked about as well as any content filtering software, which is to say not perfectly. The Post found more headline fodder last week, and pressure mounted on CityBridge to do something. It has effectively decided to pull web access from the kiosks and regroup. 

Over the next 48 hours, CityBridge will disable the web browsers in all the Links. The phone calls, WiFi, and mapping features will not be impacted. Jen Hensley, LinkNYC’s general manager, said it plans to bring web browsing back once it figures out a way to combat the problematic usage. This could include time limits. Hensley said something also has to be done about content filtering, but there’s no clear path to such a solution.  “The internet is a constantly-changing and very big place, and it’s hard, if not impossible, frankly, to stay on top of every piece of inappropriate content,” she said.

In addition to issues around pornography and public nuisance, the project has raised hackles from privacy advocates. In July, the Village Voice ran a cover story describing LinkNYC as Google’s “Trojan Horse,” and claiming that New York had decided “to sell citizens’ privacy off the back of a truck to a for-profit company.” The kiosks are actually “spy stations,” Benjamin Dean, a consultant and former fellow on internet governance at Columbia University, said at a conference this summer. 

Dean also said the privacy policies governing the system’s free WiFi are too vague. This was a predictable argument -- internet privacy and government and corporate information-gathering are now part of the discussion for any digital service. It’s doubly true given that CityBridge and New York’s government are pitching the service as a kind of public infrastructure, even though it is privately-run and Alphabet is involved. But the company’s response has been that its privacy policies were open-ended because it was still learning how the system would be used. 

The stumbles in New York are coming early in Sidewalk Labs’ existence, at a time when it is trying to expand the types of services it provides and the cities it works with. It will have to convince skeptical city governments to open themselves up to new services and work with an unproven partner. So far, its approach is more akin to a small software startup than an infrastructure company.  

Hensley said the plan for the Links was always to put them up and then figure things out as they went along. “We didn’t know what to expect with free internet access on the street,” she said. “We built this to change over time, and that’s how we handled anticipating these issues. If it wasn’t this it would have been something else.” 

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