No, Google Wi-Fi is Not Free

Nathan Weinberg complains about the time it has taken to get final government approval for the Google/Earthlink plan to provide municipal wi-fi to the citizens of San Francisco. Weinberg’s main argument is that the “Last time I checked, when someone wanted to give you something for free, even if it isn’t perfect, the price tag usually means you let them.”

The problem here is that this service is far from being free. A Google Account will be required to access the system, which brings with it a myriad of opportunities for Google to collect information about users’ searching behavior.

Further, everyone who uses the Google wi-fi network would first be directed to a portal page, where they would be offered an array of what Google terms “personalized consumer products.” Through those products and other technologies, Google plans, according to its proposal, to “target advertisements to specific geographical locations and to user interests.”

What this means is that Google and Earthlink plan to use cookies and other data-collection techniques – combined with locational data based on which node of the wi-fi network they are in – to profile users and deliver personalized & location-specific advertising as they surf the Internet. To facilitate this, users will be providing Google not only an insight into their online search activities, but also their physical location, all to power Google’s mobile search economic ecosystem.

Clearly, then, the information users provide Google has value. They are not getting the service for free.

While Weinberg recognizes that Google is providing the wi-fi service to “make money through other means,” he still considers the service essentially “free” to the end users, and seems to view the sharing of personal information simply an “imperfection” that should be accepted in the spirit of receiving a “free” service.

That is not an acceptable trade-off. The real cost to users here is not just the economic value of the information provided to Google, but the underlying impact on privacy, autonomy, and liberty. These costs are often hidden, and easily cast aside by positions like Weinberg’s. But, as Hume has said, “It is seldom, that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”


  1. The last time I checked, Google was not a charitable, non-profit organization.

    Another thing, if you don’t want to give any of your personal info to Google, just use another service. Oh, I forgot, in order to use any of the other services you must open an account with them, also give them your personal information… AND PAY A MONTHLY SUBSCRIPTION.

    Given the choices, I will go with Google.

  2. No where have I suggested that Google shouldn’t be allowed to make a profit from services they provide. I’m saying that it is wrong to consider such services “free” to users – even if they don’t pay a subscription fee, there is a cost to users to use Google’s wi-fi offering.

  3. Then the word ‘free’ should be eliminated from the dictionary, because the way you put it… nothing will ever be free.
    If I want to give you my laptop for ‘free’, you will say that it is not so, because you will have to come to me (if I come to you I will know where you live, find out your name, etc). When you come to me, or we meet somwhere else you will carry the laptop to your car (I might see what car your’re driving, the licence plate and get your info from DMV), etc.

    I give 5$ to a beggar. He buys alcohol or a Pepsi with lots of sugar or something fat that will clog his arteries. Not free. Where do you put the fact that I felt satisfaction giving the 5$, so I did get something in return. My 5$ gift was not free, I did get something in return.

    The extent of Google’s interest in Michael Zimmer’s or my personal information is to run it through an algorithm and give us a more personalized search info (and non-intrusive local ads). Yes, this way they will make money, when – AND IF – we click on one of their ads. So what?? Good for them and good for us.

    It is too late for privacy paranoia. Every time you go outside a camera is filming you, or someone from the government could see you through one of their satellites (where the hell is Osama?), everytime you buy something your purchase is recorded… and now we can all find you at

    I think the city of San Francisco has granted this deal to Google because their bid was better to the city and to us. We should applaud the mayor and Google for offering an additional service (a choice – not forced down our throats), instead of discussing semantics – how free it is.

  4. I want to add some more support here to Michael’s analysis. And that is not only would the google service cost in terms of privacy lost, but there is a long term cost here, in terms of the privatization of that which ought to be public.

    We tend to think of internet access as a “bonus,” an extra in life. But as more and more information, work, services, hell all of life, is affected by what takes place in the digital realm, access to and control over this service will increasingly determine people’s life chances. That is while now you can measure someone’s life chances by access to schooling and health care, in a few more years access to technology will also be a key factor.

    I raise this issue to say that we should stop thinking about internet access as something business’s should provide and rather start thinking of it as a public access issue. We wouldn’t let google (or any company for that matter) say to the government, we will provide you roads to travel on for free if you just let us collect data about how you use those roads so that we can then maximize setting up of billboards to sell you stuff.

    There are ways in which it is important to keep market forces separate from public utlities. And by allowing google to supply the wi-fi access in San Fran. it allows the government to not assume this responsibility. Isn’t it a better route to go to provide these services free of charge (I realize this wouldn’t be free as it would get rolled into the tax structure, everything has a cost, some monetary some not) for everyone in the community.

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