Off Target

by News Staff / July 31, 2007

I just read your editorial in the March issue of Government Technology on Culver City, Calif.'s concerns about people using its Wi-Fi system to illegally trade copyrighted materials and porn [The Cost of Free Wi-Fi]. You thought the city's concerns frivolous and that government should be prepared to let people use their network any way they wish.

Yes, you are alone.

I am, like you, far from an expert in these legal issues. It seems to me, however, based on recent stories in the computer press, that government is held to a different standard in its operations than we hold ourselves.

You are no doubt familiar with the case of a school district back East that was held liable for damages to the parents of a boy who downloaded porn on the school's computer. The court did not blame the parents who did not teach their kid not to do certain things. The court blamed the school district for not having blocking software on the computer, never mind that the blocking software also interfered with the ability of the students to do Internet research.

You are also no doubt familiar with the plight of a teacher back East facing criminal charges for accidentally stumbling on a porn site during a class, and her frantic efforts to close the site only led to the opening of more. [Editor's note: The teacher was granted a re-trial in early June due to "erroneous" testimony from a computer expert witness presented by state prosecutors, according to news reports.]

I also think you chose some bad examples.

Of course the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] doesn't sue Comcast. If they did, they would be facing an opponent with more money than they have and a phalanx of lawyers who could tie up the suit in court for many years. Better to sue a 10-year-old who downloaded a song from Napster. She didn't have the money to fight.

Government has been held to not be an ISP [Internet service provider] and is forbidden to compete with ISPs, at least in many states. Juries view government as having deep pockets, and I have no doubt that now that Culver City (formerly Swinging Culver City, home of the Meadowbrook Lounge where all the big bands held sway in the late '40s) knows that people are using its Wi-Fi network (note the added element of knowledge) for nasty things, it runs a high risk of being held liable.

Porn sites do hog bandwidth, as the incident of the teacher shows. They disable the "close" and "back" buttons, and attempts to close one site only lead to more sites opening. The only way to get out is to shut down the computer.

ISPs censor content all the time. They censor spam and other junk e-mail and reserve the right to kick people off for using their service for just the purposes that concern Culver City. When government competes in the marketplace, it does so on the same grounds as private individuals.

Why should Culver City not be allowed the same rights as a private ISP? It would only take one adverse judgment against a city to ax all municipal participation in spreading Wi-Fi across the country to all who need it. I believe Culver City was right to take the actions it did. The solution, however, needs to come from the Legislature to enact a statute to protect cities operating Wi-Fi networks from such threats.

Finally, presumably Culver City took its action only after getting the opinion of its city attorney. He must have determined that there was a risk to the city. If the city were confident that there was no risk, I do not believe that it would have taken the actions that it did.

You should stick to the application of technology to government operations, where you are an expert. In my view, you let your own political leanings get the better of you on this one.

This incident would, I believe, make a good article, though, for a future issue. What are the parameters of a city's responsibilities and duties when running municipal Wi-Fi? I should think a full analysis would be most useful.  - John Waid