Last week marked perhaps the most visible stumbling block for New York City's new, cutting edge public Wi-Fi project, LinkNYC. Since the rollout of Link kiosks began around the city in January, there have been a number of complaints about misuse of these terminals, particularly about people using the kiosks to watch porn and other inappropriate content. Thus far, LinkNYC has tried to address some of these concerns by implementing reduced volume levels after midnight and installing content filters like those used in public schools—but after continued complaints, on September 14 LinkNYC completely turned off browsing capabilities for the tablets installed in each kiosk.
In a public statement about the change, LinkNYC notes that "The kiosks were never intended for anyone's extended, personal use," and their main functionality—free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, map functions, and USB charging ports—has not been affected by this change.
As noted in our piece on LinkNYC—published the same day these changes were made—the "home offices" being improvised on street corners around the city by the homeless and loiterers does not seem to be exactly what the city had it mind when it pledged to help break down the digital divide. In this sense, LinkNYC's dramatic move to halt a burgeoning PR problem comes as no big surprise.
After spending a few hours on 8th Avenue this weekend, we clearly saw a change in dynamics around the kiosks. Disabling the built-in browser has stamped down on more "convivial" gatherings, like the two teen boys we witnessed giggling at Facebook together, or the group of middle-aged men gathered on the sidewalk watching football. We saw many more people using the free phone call functionality than before, and over half of the 20 people we saw using Links were charging their own devices.
One man who called himself "John Smith" was camped out at a Link charging a backup battery for his phone. He said he used the kiosks free charging ports "every day", and that he had also been using the kiosk to watch YouTube videos until "some idiot got caught jacking off and ruined it for everyone." He also noted that he had found it really useful to get information about the city, since he had been stranded away from his home in Michigan for several weeks.
Many people, including Link "campers" like John Smith, continued to browse the web using their own device, tethered to the kiosks' free Wi-Fi and charging ports. This raises the possibility that even the dramatic move of shutting off the browsing on the kiosk's embedded tablets may only have a limited dampening effect on the kind of misuse LinkNYC is trying to prevent.
Overall, this spectacle highlights some of the unforeseen social and technical problems that are likely to surround the smart city movement more generally. In this instance, LinkNYC is facing two extremely complex issues: 1) The technical problem of implementing strong content filtering that still allows users to access legitimate sites and apps; and 2) The social problem of negotiating the desire to provide the city's underserved with access to an important utility—while not wanting this problem to be visibly manifest on our street corners, camped out on overturned newspaper stands.
Meanwhile, the march of the Links must go on. Jen Hensley, general manager of LinkNYC, noted that the entire network relies on sales of digital ads on the side of the kiosks, and that the consortium behind LinkNYC has committed to sharing at least $500 million of that ad revenue with the city in the next 12 years.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.