Jeff Chester notes that Google's SF offer creates "a honeypot for law enforcement": The columnist says that Google's stock-in-trade is delivering targeted ads and tracking user behavior and location to provide the right ads. Chester writes of the model of opt-out, ad-sponsored Wi-Fi service across an entire city, "The inevitable consequences are an erosion of online privacy, potential new threats of surveillance by law enforcement agencies and private parties, and the growing commercialization of culture."
Three organizations dedicated to privacy and rights of expression filed comments on the Google/EarthLink bid to San Francisco: the ACLU of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Chester notes these groups urged accommodation for privacy and anonymous surfing.
Chester strays from advocating privacy to suggest that cities might develop their own community networks and that "the cost of building such networks can be very low." He points to the small town of St. Cloud, Florida, which offers free Wi-Fi for residents. But St. Cloud's costs were relatively high for a city of 30,000: "City revenue from the development is funding the $2.6 million in start-up costs, which include the first year of operation. The annual cost afterward is estimated at $400,000."
I can't see how any large city could justify the $10 to $20 million to set up and run a free Wi-Fi network even if there are ultimately cost savings involved. It's not politically popular, and offsetting the financial risk to a private company is a great alternative for towns that can't appropriately fund education and public transportation.
Where this comes to a crux, of course, is that free networks require money to support them. Advertising is one means in Google's and MetroFi's view. In both cases, however, you can still pay for advertising-free service. Whether tracking is disabled when you're paying isn't known. Opting out of using the network removes any privacy risk, but it also removes the utility of a network that has an ostensible civic purpose.
If free Wi-Fi becomes a citizen's right--at a slow speeds or for limited hours each day--it seems inappropriate to hand over control of users' privacy to a private enterprise when a municipality is, in effect, providing authorization and often some or all the city's telecom budget to provide quasi-exclusivity to the winning bidder.