City of Boston Censoring Municipal WiFi
Various people (including David Sheets, a student of mine at MIT, and Seth Finkelstein) have pointed out over the last few days that the ‘free’ municipal WiFi service offered by the City of Boston comes with mandatory content filtering that blocks all kinds of sites which are not even close to illegal nor are they sources of pornography that might be considered harmful to children. One the one hand it’s not hard to see why city officials want to avoid the headline: “Boston’s free network a conduit to porn for city’s children, foiling parents’ filtering software.” But does that mean that it’s either wise public policy or constitutionally-permissible for the city to offer wifi to the public with such sweeping and arbitrary constraints?
If the City is allowed to do this, then they can block just about anything: Web sites operated by the opposing political party, critiques of the Big Dig, not to mention http://yankees.mlb.com/. One has to ask whether this is really a path that any city would want to open up for itself?
As a constitutional matter, it’s not quite clear whether the government can require government-funded Internet service providers to filter content. In United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003), the US Supreme Court decided that the Congress could require libraries receiving federal Internet access subsidies (the e-rate) to filter out porn. However, it’s not clear whether this case applies to the muni Wifi situation. The Supreme Court explained:
A public library does not acquire Internet terminals in order to create a public forum for Web publishers to express themselves, any more than it collects books in order to provide a public forum for the authors of books to speak. It provides Internet access, not to “encourage a diversity of views from private speakers,” … but for the same reasons it offers other library resources: to facilitate research, learning, and recreational pursuits by furnishing
materials of requisite and appropriate quality.
For what purpose is muni wifi offered? It’s it precisely to create an expanded public forum to increase the flow of information and new web services around the city?
This will be an interesting issue to watch.