Can Cities Protect the Free, Open Internet for Everyone?

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Montblanc

It’s not the best of times to be online, in New York City or anywhere. In Washington, the current administration is dismantling FCC privacy rules that would prevent internet-service providers from selling user data. Visitors, immigrants, and others may be asked by customs agents to surrender their social-media passwords at the border. And many of New York City’s poorest residents — who have the most to gain from a steady internet connection — remain unconnected.

These developments run contrary to the internet’s original — and best — nature: a decentralized, level playing field controlled and shaped by individual users, not select corporations and governments. Developments like these also carry major implications. Today, the internet and society are deeply entwined. When the internet’s founding principles are cast aside for profit and control, human rights, inclusion, and equality suffer greatly.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine this: A group of recent immigrants gather around a table at a Brooklyn Public Library branch, learning online privacy and security basics from a trained librarian. Nearby, a low-income resident uses her library card to check out a device to bring free, fast Wi-Fi home to her family. One borough over, at City Hall, city government is enacting new rules that put New Yorkers, and not ISPs, in control of their personal data. This is the internet as it should be — a public resource, open and accessible to all — and it’s closer to reality than you might think.

Last week, New York City announced several new initiatives to keep residents connected and safe online. “My team and I are acutely aware of the threats to privacy and human rights that come with internet use,” wrote Miguel Gamiño Jr., New York City’s CTO. New York Public Library’s Library HotSpot program is already providing otherwise unconnected patrons with hot spots they can take home to study, pay their bills, and connect with family. The city’s librarians and other staff will now receive online privacy and security training, which will cover topics like password security and how personal data is transacted online.

And with FCC privacy regulations freshly dismantled, and net neutrality’s future up for a vote later this month, the city is undertaking a legal review intended to explore its authority to enact its own protections for residents online, as well as conducting a review of current city broadband projects with an eye toward human rights, inclusivity, and privacy. “The internet belongs to the people — not giant corporations. We won’t give up net neutrality without a fight,” the mayor’s office recently tweeted.

The city has also partnered with Mozilla and Research Action Design (RAD) to create a digital security-training program for city-contracted, community-based organizations that serve vulnerable populations. For example: groups that provide immigration legal screenings and assistance to NYC residents. This training will allow these organizations to address evolving threats to digital security. We’re aiming to make the program scalable, so it can serve all New Yorkers.

New York City has a long history of digital savvy, from its 2025 broadband commitment, to the outsize influence of Silicon Alley, to community-run programs like Mouse and Eyebeam. But last week’s news is something bigger: The City is recognizing — loudly — just how deeply the internet and society are entwined. New York City is saying: Sound digital policies are about more than the latest hardware, or JavaScript classes. They’re about upholding civil liberties, free expression, and an open society. This is something we all need to herald and applaud.

We’re buoyed by all this news. And New York City residents should be, too. By supporting a better internet, their government is also supporting a better city. We’ve seen it before: In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a municipal, city-owned fiber network has given residents internet access that outstrips average speeds by more than 200x. And a network of local entrepreneurs and educators have layered canny innovations atop this infrastructure, creating custom education and workforce development technologies.

This is heartening for New Yorkers and for Chattanoogans. But it also holds promise for cities everywhere: Municipal leaders can play an important role in making sure their citizens have a healthy and accessible internet. Last week was a good week for those across the five boroughs — and for the internet broadly.

Hopefully, it is also the harbinger of things to come: A municipally led movement — in America and around the world — to put the internet back in the hands of the people.

Mark Surman is the executive director of Mozilla.

Can Cities Protect the Free, Open Internet for Everyone?