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.”
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.”