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Broadband for all, privacy for some? Guest commentary

by Bryan Cunningham

I’m sitting at sunset in a Starbucks in the shadow of the Disney water tower. Observing the students, writers, producers, software designers, musicians, actors and salespeople nearby, it occurs to me, not for the first time, that we’re not here for the $6 coffee. Whether to study, work, take a meeting or kill time between auditions, many of us are here also, or exclusively, for the free WiFi.

Like electricity, broadband Internet access has become indispensable to modern life: doing homework, job hunting, working, shopping, locating government services, social networking, communicating with family, all are enabled through Internet access. Starbucks recognized this before almost anyone else. They built free WiFi, and we came, those of us able and willing to buy $6 coffee in the bargain.

But what about Angelenos who can’t pay, or can’t easily get to a Starbucks or other business with free WiFi, or feel intimidated or out of place there? How will they get the “electricity” to fully participate in modern life? Is this a question of fundamental fairness and equal opportunity?

The city of Los Angeles thinks so. Earlier this month, the city issued a “request For information” (RFI) detailing its plans to seek private sector partners to build free, or very cheap, “broadband wired and wireless infrastructure across Los Angeles.” A supporting city study previously found: “The Digital Divide in Los Angeles is real and the need to provide more affordable and accessible broadband to all parts of Los Angeles is a necessity to improve Economic Development, increase student graduate rates, and provide critical services and employment opportunities.”

A worthy goal, but there’s no such thing as “free” broadband, with estimates for the project reaching $5 billion. How to pay? The RFI suggests that private companies foot the bill, possibly in return for lucrative city cellphone or other contracts or being able to charge a premium for high-speed access while providing free basic service. One option not in the current RFI should be of great concern to all Angelenos: allowing providers to mine users’ data for targeted advertising or other profit.

Privacy threats from “free” email, web searching and the like are well known. Beyond the millions who have lost personal data to security breaches and the now infamous Target mailing of diaper ads to a teenager whose father was unaware of her pregnancy are recent reports of the grieving father who received a marketing offer tagged “daughter killed in car crash” and the data brokers pitching products to groups labeled “ethnic second-city strugglers.”

In pursuing the worthy goal of broadband access for all Angelenos, the city should take the necessary steps to protect their privacy. They should reject private enterprise partners with weak privacy track records and ensure that selected providers implement strong security measures to protect the confidentiality of users’ information. More importantly, the city should prohibit providers from data-mining the content of users’ communications.

Fortunately, L.A. knows how to do this. A recent request for proposal for the city’s own email services required providers to “warrant that all … capabilities to conduct data mining … have been either removed from its cloud service or disabled entirely.” This same requirement should be a non-negotiable part of the broadband RFP as well.

Narrowing our city’s digital divide without creating an unfair and potentially dangerous “privacy divide” is a significant challenge.

In doing so, the city should ensure that all Angelenos have the same privacy protections it rightfully demands for its own email.

Bryan Cunningham is a Los Angeles-based data security and privacy lawyer with Cunningham Levy LLP, and a senior adviser at The Chertoff Group, a global strategic advisory and risk management firm that that consults clients on cybersecurity, including information technology and the cloud.

View the original commentary at the Los Angeles Daily News

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