Friday, February 16, 2007

Local Headlines

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been in the national technology news all this week, first for promoting an ambitious wi-fi plan for the city and then for announcing a major crackdown on piracy.

In justifying a new task force headed by council member Wendy Greuel, the mayor cites a recent report, "A False Bargain: The Los Angeles County Economic Consequences of Counterfeit Products," which claims that the proliferation of these wares disproportionately hurts Los Angeles. The Hollywood Reporter has highlighted one statistic in particular, that over 100,000 local jobs are at stake. Apparently, it's not just bootlegged hard goods at issue in the report, although fake DVDs and counterfeit branded items were prominently displayed at the mayor's press conference. According to the document, the top two losing industries are the motion picture and sound recording industries, and the equation between digital and analog commodities was made quite explicit in the executive summary: "Counterfeiting is not taken seriously as a criminal activities, perhaps because sharing copied music or buying an imitation handbag doesn't feel like stealing to most people."

I'm a SoCal local with a spouse in the entertainment industry, but I'm not sure that "sharing" can be equated with "counterfeiting" as it is in this document, given the social practices around free culture that would suffer from too literal-minded an approach to enforcement. LA Schools have enough problems with high cost textbooks and disengaged students. Will further limiting fair use of digital content really improve our students' educational experiences? Furthermore, I don't buy the argument that it is a "gateway" crime, which another council member has put forward.

Unfortunately, the plan for wireless is still in its most incipient phase, although Philadelphia is being touted as the model for how this dream for both pro-business technocrats and those who want to build public infrastructure to bridge the digital divide could be achieved. Cost estimates say that blanketing the city in wi-fi would work out to a per capita investment of about $15, which is certainly far less than the typical Angeleno pays for Internet connectivity now. For more on the subject, check out the work of Wireless Community Networks, which is a project of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. The full press release is here.

Of course, as a frequent flyer who often pays for Wi-Fi in airport terminals, I hope that coverage will start at the airport. Irritated fellow travelers have apparently developed a Wi-Fi liberator to broadcast pay-for-access signals for free.

Update: In "Bad reception for free wi-fi," The Los Angeles Times reports on how San Franciscans have resisted their city's deals with Earthlink and Google to provide services, citing privacy concerns and quality control issues. Then again, the crankiness of the San Francisco electorate seems to be a running theme in the LA Times, which has also recently written about the city's rabidly pro-canine lobby and suggested that the northern metropolis is really going to the dogs.

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