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Urban Design 101: If You Put Web Browsers In Old Pay Phones, People Will Watch Porn

[Photo: via LinkNYC]

This month, LinkNYC—which began replacing New York City's aging pay phones with digital kiosks offering free information and internet eight months ago—announced that it is disabling one of the kiosks' core services: web browsing. Free Wi-Fi, emergency services like 311 and 911, free phone calls, device charging, and maps are not impacted.

The rationale behind the change? Users are hogging the tablets—and using them "inappropriately"—and businesses are complaining. In a press release, LinkNYC stated:

With 400 Links installed in three boroughs, nearly 475,000 New Yorkers and visitors have signed up to use the fastest broadband publicly available in New York City and they have used it more than 21 million times. We’ve heard from New Yorkers who use the Links to save data on their mobile plans, call relatives across the country, and get a much-needed quick charge.

We also know that some users have been monopolizing the Link tablets and using them inappropriately, preventing others from being able to use them while frustrating the residents and businesses around them. The kiosks were never intended for anyone’s extended, personal use and we want to ensure that Links are accessible and a welcome addition to New York City neighborhoods.

There are 400 LinkNYC kiosks currently installed in the city and 335 are active, according to the company. There are more than 1.5 million Wi-Fi sessions per week; tablet internet usage averages less than 60,000 sessions per week. (There are on average 20,000 phone calls per week, 5,000 maps requested, and 2,500 311 calls.)

LinkNYC's revocation of internet access on the kiosk's embedded tablets is the latest blow to the project. A July story from the Village Voice described the Google-backed kiosks as a "privacy nightmare." While LinkNYC says it doesn't record your name, it can record the device you use, your age, your browsing habits, your purchases, and your address.

Recently, a Motherboard reporter traveled down 3rd Avenue in Manhattan where LinkNYC kiosks "now appear on almost every block," wrote Linda Huber. "Most users were...camped out for the long haul, for hours or even days at a time, surrounded by their possessions and browsing music videos on YouTube, making phone calls, and checking Facebook. These campers often make themselves comfortable on makeshift chairs and couches devised from newspaper stands, milk crates, and furniture pulled from alleys and street corners." Meanwhile, DNA Info reported that Corey Johnson, a councilman in Chelsea, complained to the city about LinkNYC users "creating personal spaces for themselves, engaging in activities that include playing loud, explicit music, consuming drugs and alcohol, and… viewing… pornography."

Welcome to the Smart City, where people are using the internet just as they always have, but now in public.

How the city and company did not predict this type of behavior, or plan for it, seems like an egregious oversight. When the first of the planned 7,500 LinkNYC kiosks publicly launched in February, Mayor Bill DeBlasio proclaimed, "In 2016 internet access is not a luxury. It’s not something optional." With the discontinuation of internet service on its tablets, LinkNYC is going back on that promise.

While LinkNYC has not issued a permanent solution to the problem, it's exploring options with the city that involve time restrictions.

This latest development in the program's rollout serves as a cautionary tale about the over-promising of public good by a private company. LinkNYC declined to comment further on this story, but we will update the post if more information emerges.

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