Google's high-profile proposal to provide free wireless Internet access throughout
San Francisco is all about the three rules of real estate:
Location, location, location.
Google wants to create a new kind of online advertising where its network knows
your precise location and displays ads for businesses within just a few blocks
of wherever you are.
That's OK with me. Letting Google tout a deli around the corner seems like
a fair trade for getting free WiFi service.
But there's a Big Brother risk in the emerging category of ``location-based
services'' that isn't getting enough attention.
Municipal WiFi networks, such as the one Google is proposing, could
easily keep records on where users are connecting, and it's easy to imagine
ways that information could be misused.
The risk extends to mobile phones, which are also about to become geographically
What if a cell phone company signed a contract with a credit bureau
to transmit the location of deadbeats who are late on their student loan payments?
Or a wireless network operator allows a topless dance club to force ads onto
the screen of every notebook computer in the neighborhood?
We, as a society, need to set rules for the road.
The debate needs to start now, because location-based services will start flooding
into our lives within the next year.
I'm using Google as an example here only because the Mountain View company
is attracting so much attention these days, and because its proposal in San
Francisco -- submitted Sept. 30 -- didn't become public until late last week.
specifically, is strong enough to prevent the worst-case scenarios I've just
But 25 other companies have expressed interest in building or participating
in a wireless network in San Francisco, and some of them might not have the
same scruples. Or Google could change its mind.
That's why we need laws at the city, state or federal level. It's not enough
to rely on corporate good intentions.
In San Francisco, Google is pursuing a ready-fire-aim strategy. The company
is offering to first dip into its deep pockets for a network that will cost
somewhere in the vicinity of $10 million to build. Then Google will figure out
later what new ways of delivering information and ads make sense with citywide
Of course, with Google being Google, the company is wrapping its proposal in
``Combining WiFi with Google technology gives us the ability to offer a citywide
online access network that will be free to anyone, anywhere, anytime -- clearly
the emerging and necessary ideal as humanity continues to cross this great digital
divide,'' the company declares in its filing.
I'm not sure free WiFi can end hunger and bring world peace, but it's still
a big deal. If nothing else, the spread of free or low-cost muni wireless projects
should finally break the monopolistic grip of cable and DSL providers on high-speed
The proposal includes a vague paragraph on local advertising delivered with
``advanced technology that can target advertisements to specific geographic
locations . . . Now, mom and pop local shops will be able to specifically target
affordable advertisements to WiFi networks users within a few block radius.''
Google doesn't yet know exactly how this would work, according to spokesman
``We want to learn more about how people interact with these kinds of services,''
I can see lots of applications where local advertising would be welcome. If
my car breaks down, for example, I could boot up my laptop and quickly find
which gas stations within a half-mile have a mechanic on duty, and then call
up a map showing me how to walk there.
Mobile phones that know their locations will save lives, by summoning help
when the owners are in trouble and don't know or can't communicate their location.
So it's up to all of us, as citizens and voters, to make sure the good parts
of location-based services move forward, and the bad parts don't even get started.