After President Trump announced in June 2017 that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, dozens of cities banded together to proclaim that even if the federal government wouldn’t sign on to fighting climate change, they would. Now, some of these cities are leading agents of ambitious climate policies, like New York City’s recent announcement of its own Green New Deal earlier this month.
Could cities do something similar to protect the open internet? Over the last few decades, the web has transformed from a place that was decentralized and free to a system that is overwhelmingly controlled by a handful of companies, which make billions by exploiting people’s data and rattling the integrity of democracy. The European Union is already attempting to tackle this problem through its sweeping data rights regulation, and even America’s pro-business government is preparing to slap Facebook with a multi-billion-dollar fine for its privacy practices. But the Mozilla Foundation thinks that cities, in particular, are poised to use their power to fight for citizens’ digital rights–just as they’ve been taking the lead on climate-friendly initiatives.
“Cities are a place to shape what we want from the internet, which might be faster and more powerful than what national governments can do,” says Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation. He points to an example from 2015, when the New York City Department of Education was able to require Amazon to make its e-books accessible to blind people, even though the company had been ignoring the same request from the National Federation for the Blind for years. How? By making it a stipulation of the city’s $30 million contract to create an e-book store for teachers in 1,800 schools.
According to Surman and Mozilla’s 2019 Internet Health Report, which was released last week and assesses the web on criteria like safety, openness, and accessibility, this is one way that cities can can be allies in the organization’s fight to keep the internet free and open to everyone. Cities act like marketplaces, and can offer companies lucrative contracts. Like in the Kindle case, cities can utilize those contracts to ensure that companies are adhering to established rules around accessibility. They can also use contracts to strengthen other kinds of access: for instance, after the FCC struck down net neutrality, 21 mayors pledged to only contract with broadband companies that would agree to abide by net neutrality rules. “Mayors had enough buying power that they felt they could mitigate that and turn the tide a little bit by putting pressure on companies,” Surman says.
According to Max Sevilia, the director of external affairs for the NYC mayor’s office of the chief technology officer, this coalition has now grown to 130 cities. New York City spends $600 million to provide internet to city employees and to offer city services, and this money only goes toward broadband providers that uphold net neutrality.
Cities can change the way companies collect data as well, particularly those that operate on streets. In Los Angeles, the Department of Transportation built an API that receives all the data for scooters and e-bikes ridden in the city, data that’s used to make policy decisions about where to put bike lanes or to ensure that all neighborhoods are getting equal access to these modes of transportation. Why would scooter companies ever agree to this? They have to, if they want a license to operate.
“What’s cool about that is cities have a set of regulatory powers that are very different from others, which is licensing and planning,” Surman says. “They’re trading licensing for internet health benefits around data. That’s a good bargaining chip.”
Surman believes that these shifts in who has access to data will be beneficial for the internet as a whole–even if privacy advocates are wary about how transportation companies sharing data with the government could mean that it ends up in the hands of law enforcement agencies like ICE, and the companies themselves will fight tooth and nail not to relinquish their treasured data.
“If you can put geospatial data from Uber and Google into the commons where the public or people who are standing for the public interest like cities can use it, that moves us toward an overall healthier internet ecology and also does shift the practices of these business because they [normally] just don’t share this stuff,” Surman says. “Does that shift their business practices overnight? No. But is it chipping away and showing a different angle of approach? I think it can.”
However, cities don’t always use their power for good. There are just as many, if not more, examples of cities that are making questionable decisions about using technology. Local law enforcement are buying biased facial recognition tools from the very companies that cities should be protecting citizens from. Smart cities run amok are really just arms of the surveillance state. Many have jumped at adding digital infrastructure to their streets without thinking through the privacy implications.
Take the city of Toronto, which has invited Google sister company Sidewalk Labs to create a smart city along its waterfront without first establishing a set of privacy guidelines–a move that has led to a lawsuit from a Canadian civil rights advocacy group. This may have happened because cities need the knowledge and tools to make smart decisions about how to use the internet. Cities’ politicians and civil servants don’t necessarily have the expertise to act as a negotiator for citizens’ internet rights. According to former Mozilla fellow Meghan McDermott, who created a NYC-specific version of the Internet Health Report this year, it all depends on the city being in touch with what’s actually happening on the ground, which is difficult to do unless there’s a robust network of civil society organizations that are designed to advance the public good.
Still, Surman is hopeful that cities could lead the way on open data and protecting citizens’ privacy. In November 2018, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and New York City launched the Cities for Digital Rights coalition, which aims to provide “trustworthy and secure digital services and infrastructures that support our communities” through a five-point agenda of equal access to the internet, privacy and data protection, transparency and non-discriminatory algorithms, diversity and inclusion, and open and ethical digital service standards. In practice, that means making city data accessible to the public, publishing standards online, and providing digital devices to rent through local libraries.
McDermott sees this as an “antidote to smart cities” because it provides a framework for how cities can use technology to uphold people’s rights rather than abusing them. If cities can share their best practices for ensuring the internet is safe, secure, and accessible to everyone–whether that’s through preserving net neutrality or defending digital rights–they might be able to both stem the privacy problems created by overeager smart cities and act as a bulwark against the centralized power of tech companies.
“I would say it’s still early days,” Surman says. “But we’re looking for any and all allies who can help push the internet back to something that benefits all of us.”