It may be that the biggest tragedy of the tragedy of the commons is that, as tragedies go, it’s all too common.
The latest example is in the story I came across today, via multiple shares on Facebook and elsewhere, that New York City is disabling the web browsers at its public-access Internet booths after less than eight months because indigents were monopolizing them for watching porn, and often drinking or doing drugs.
“People are congregating around these Links to the point where they’re bringing furniture and building little encampments clustered around them,” said Barbara A. Blair, president of the Garment District Alliance, a business group in Manhattan. “It’s created this really unfortunate and actually deplorable condition.”
Universally, every share I’ve seen of this story on Facebook, or my friends when I mentioned it to them, responded with the sentiment, “Well, what did they expect?” Leaving aside unfortunate stereotypes of the homeless, it’s already been demonstrated that, given free Internet access, even many non-homeless people will often use it in unintended ways. Nor is it the first time that public Internet facilities have seen such uses, as this New York Times blog post from August notes of Chinatown’s Internet cafés.
The article discusses possible measures LinkNYC might take to solve the issue, such as putting limitations on web browsers’ use, including anti-pornography filters. The article contends that such filters would only affect the built-in tablets at LinkNYC booths, not the personal devices of people using the free Wi-Fi such booths also provide—which frankly puzzles me, given that many establishments that offer free Wi-Fi have anti-pornography filters in place on their Wi-Fi. (Such filters have even erroneously prevented me from accessing the old TeleRead.com site from my local KFC/Taco Bell’s Wi-Fi, though I never was able to figure out to whom I should complain about that.)
But whatever New York City does to make its free Internet less attractive to those who would abuse it, it serves as a potent reminder to those who seek to bridge the digital divide in similar and other ways—not everybody is going to want to use the Internet in ways that will better themselves. How do you keep that sort of thing to a minimum, without impeding the usefulness of the Internet for the ones who do want to better themselves?
For that matter, not everybody is going to approve of the ways everybody else uses the Internet, even when those ways aren’t morally suspect. Should digital-divide-bridging Internet for the poor be used for playing games? Watching movies (even non-pornographic ones)? Reading trashy tabloid news sites? Reading popular fiction ebooks? For every use someone makes that isn’t educating themselves, finding a job, or otherwise beyond reproach, someone else will complain they don’t want their tax dollars or donations going to let someone do that with their free time. Where do you draw the line?
I don’t have any easy answers for that. I doubt anyone does. But the New York City situation inarguably demonstrates that it’s something we need to consider when it comes to bridging the digital divide. The Internet is without question a double-edged sword.