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Fighting government-controlled internet in San Francisco.

Nov
21
2005

The background to the municipal wi-fi debate in San Francisco is simple enough: Grandstanding SF Mayor Gavin Newsom fancies himself a national Democratic player — despite the harm he’s done to national Dems — and he’s willing to do almost anything to prove it. Whether demolishing the traditional family in a ham-handed manner, pompously invoking Kennedy-esque rhetoric to describe his own governance, or promising free internet to everyone, you can trust Gavin Newsom to promise the moon, under-deliver, get lots of media attention, and look good doing it.

Full disclosure: I signed this letter. I work for this think tank. I strongly support the fight against government-controlled internet. And I think you should too.

Make no mistake: Gavin Newsom really does want to give everyone in his fair city “free” wi-fi. Characteristically, he’s hinted at dark forces out to stop him (every would-be populist needs an opponent) in his quest to fulfill the fundamental right to internet access. Yes, you read that right — he has asserted wireless internet as a fundamental right. This may strike you as absurd, and well it should: but whatever the average San Franciscan’s attitude toward actual fundamental rights, don’t think for a moment that this stand on principle, or lack thereof, extends to resisting the siren call of Free Stuff from the Government.

That free stuff is, of course, never free. But people need reminding. So, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about just what’s wrong with municipal wi-fi — or, as I prefer to call it, government-controlled internet.

All your interwebs are belong to pretty me.

The consequences of the city government granting special privileges to one ISP (which will presumably supply citywide wi-fi) will be classic examples of what happens when the government decides to play favorites in the erstwhile private sector: Competitors will find it difficult to compete against the full backing of the local government. Eventually they will withdraw from the market altogether — this is especially true of smaller ISPs with thin profit margins. The net result for the San Francisco consumer will be less choice; meanwhile, the de facto monopolist will feel progressively less market pressure to innovate and improve its services. Since wi-fi technology is hardly static, it’s not difficult to imagine San Francisco being locked into an obsolete wireless standard as a result of this experiment in a decade or so. (See France’s Minitel debacle for an instructive parallel.)

Let’s also discuss how this is going to be paid for. It’s possible that the city will directly fund the implementation of city wi-fi, in which case the San Franciscan taxpayer will foot the bill. More likely, the recipient of the citywide wi-fi monopoly will self-fund the project through advertising revenues. In which case, picture this: a San Francisco in which your only real ISP choice is the citywide wi-fi — and every web page you view has a little NetZero/Yahoo/Google ad popup on it.

Finally, history tells us that when government assumes a responsibility for content, it inevitably ends up attempting to make it conform to some manner of standards. This may seem harmless and even laudatory to many who would be happy to see, say, web pornography disappear: but wait till it happens to online political content. Or religious content. Or “libelous” and “defamatory” content.

Why even open that door?

If you have absolute trust in the common sense, competence, and good intentions of the city government in perpetuity — and its ability to thwart the normal mechanisms of the market — then you should support municipal wi-fi. For the rest of us, we ought to think twice about killing the conditions that have already made San Francisco one of the most wired cities in America.

For more discussion, see Morey Straus at SF.metblogs. And don’t forget to take action.

Needless to say, nothing in this diary should be even remotely construed as conveying the views of the Pacific Research Institute.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 5:23 PM | Permalink

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