Humans Do Dumb Things with Smart Cities

New York City’s street-corner Internet plans are being curtailed because people are abusing the service.

New York City wants to make Wi-Fi available to anyone who walks its streets. But Gotham is finding out the hard way that free and open Internet access is ripe for abuse.

Since January, the city has been replacing phone booths with LinkNYC kiosks that allow people to get online as part of a project spearheaded by Alphabet’s urban innovation division, Sidewalk Labs. So far, around 400 have been installed and 475,000 people have signed up to use them. The kiosks themselves act as Wi-Fi hot spots and also feature a tablet-style interface that allows users to browse the Internet.

Instead of using the interface to check a map or look up a phone number, though, some people have been using them to blast out music and watch pornography in the middle of Times Square, reports Bloomberg. Efforts have been made to mitigate those problems, limiting the volume and brightness of the devices and placing filters on the Internet access. (The latter clearly didn’t work: police arrested a man for masturbating at one kiosk just this week.)

It’s also been noted that the kiosks seem to attract groups of homeless people, who congregate around them to watch video and use social media, according to Motherboard. It’s difficult to pick that last fact apart. The New York Times reports that while such people have been found drinking and taking drugs, they may also rely on the kiosks as their only way to access the Internet.

Either way, residents and businesses have complained, and their voices have been heard. In an announcement yesterday, the team behind LinkNYC explained that pedestrians will no longer be able to use the terminals to browse the Web. People will still be able to use the kiosks as Wi-Fi hot spots, but the attached tablets will only provide non-browsing services—such as maps and phone calls. Steps to curb antisocial use of the service, such as time limits, are being investigated.

Building out free public Internet provision is undeniably a good thing. And while it may be easy to see in retrospect that such problems would arise, it’s to the credit of the team behind the kiosks that it dared to make an entirely public platform so open at all. As LinkNYC’s general manager, Jen Hensley, told Bloomberg: “We didn’t know what to expect with free Internet access on the street. We built this to change over time, and that’s how we handled anticipating these issues. If it wasn’t this it would have been something else.”

There will, no doubt, be other things to come. Because while humans may not be too dumb for smart cities, there is no escaping the fact that they act like humans, with primitive urges, group mentality, and NIMBYism all part of the package. The cities of the future will have to take that into account—just as every other city has in the past.

(Read more: New York Times, Bloomberg, Motherboard)