Google Defends Wi-Fi Network Plans on Eve of Launch

By Ben Charny  |  Posted 2006-06-08

Google's gone on the offensive to try and allay any privacy and coverage concerns about a wireless Internet network it plans to switch on later in June in Mountain View, Calif.

The message Google's been delivering recently via local media interviews and meetings with local businesses and citizens is, to paraphrase, "don't worry, just surf." As to how extensive the network is, it'll reach most of the city, but expect some dead zones in out-of-the-way places, and the local golf course.

Google's outreach blitz coincides with the impending launch of its first wireless Internet network. By July 1, beta testers will get their first crack at the Wi-Fi network Google's built in Mountain View, its hometown. The Mountain View network isn't expected to become available to the general public until later this year.

Google also has plans to take part in a municipal wireless network in San Francisco, being built by Internet provider EarthLink, and possibly one in New Orleans. So its experiences in Mountain View will be very telling indeed as to its future wireless endeavors.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about Google Wi-Fi is the concern that its networks are capable of tracking users' whereabouts.

The answer is yes, according to Chris Sacca, Google's head of special initiatives. But it's not to the pinpoint degree of accuracy many detractors think it will be, he said during two interviews this week.

Privacy advocates fear the worst: that by virtue of Wi-Fi technology Google's using, the firm will know someone's whereabouts within a few feet. And that adds a very new and uncomfortable level to the private information that Google already has about its consumers.

To be sure, Google will gain a level of geographical certainty about a Wi-Fi network user, but it's going to be within a few football fields of accuracy, which is the range of any one single Wi-Fi access point, Sacca said.

He added Google will have little more than a user's e-mail address to match to their location, which reveals very little personal detail, he said.

That's not to say Google doesn't plan to take a look at using more accurate location-based technology, wherever it might be found.

Such technology would help Google further two of its goals: to serve up more locally targeted ads, which businesses are calling for, and to provide new, more locally based content to Google consumers.

Law enforcement is a wild card in this debate. As with any request from law enforcement, Sacca said Google would only respond to valid and appropriate requests for user's whereabouts, should police ever ask.

"We have some tried and true principles of how we do business," Sacca said. "We have a deep commitment to privacy."

Another question Google faces is just how much of Mountain View will ultimately be covered by the network. Google's goal is 100 percent, wall-to-wall, but that's likely not going to be the case when Google lights the network, Sacca says.

Rather, one of the purposes of the June launch for beta testers is to get a better idea of just how much of the city is covered. Sacca already has a good idea of what areas might not be -- a few trailer parks for instance, and a golf course.

But he said he believes the majority of the city will be.

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