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ACLU slams SF's data hoarding Wi-Fi network

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The American Civil Liberties Union became the latest group to criticize a city-wide network San Francisco has proposed building with EarthLink and Google, arguing that the deal would compromise user privacy.

In a letter sent to members of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, an official with the Northern California chapter of the ACLU said the group is "very concerned that the final municipal wireless contract with Google and EarthLink does not include adequate safeguards for privacy and free speech." Topping their concerns, were plans by Google and EarthLink to gather information about users in order to recoup costs of the service, some of which will be delivered for free.

"The business model of a municipal wireless system should not include tracking and profiling user activities in order to sell or trade data or develop targeted advertising based on user information and online activities," an attachment to the letter argued. "Such a business model creates an incentive to collect as much data about an individual and maintain it for as long as possible in order to create profiles about users."

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who earlier this week became the latest US politician to blame his flawed judgment on a drinking problem, faces a growing group of naysayers wagging their fingers at his plan to blanket the city's 49 square miles with free or affordable WiFi. While the populist mayor says he's only doing it to bring net access to the underprivileged, critics complain the plan is built on cronyism (they point to plane rides the jet-setting mayor took with Sergei and Larry) and obsolete technology and that it hands over valuable public assets to EarthLink for little in return.

Under the plan, EarthLink would provide 1Mbps of downstream service for $22 per month and Google would shoulder the costs of providing 300Kbps for free in exchange for being able to do what it does best - gathering, storing and crunching a myriad of data on those who use its service. The city would agree to lease its utility poles for free under the plan in exchange for EarthLink investing from $6m to $10m on the infrastructure. While at least one supervisor has said he will not approve the proposal unless it is modified, most say it's too early to tell how they'll vote.

In a city where peace, love and radicalism are a part of its bedrock, the ACLU's pooh-poohing could spell doom for Newsom's noble experiment. Then again, maybe not. The city's police commission last month unanimously approved the expansion of a public surveillance program despite ACLU warnings that it would surely end freedom as we've known it. ®

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