Fordham Law’s McGannon Center has received a $50,000 award from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to support research into the impact of public communications infrastructure projects, including the WiFi kiosk networks in New York City and Philadelphia. Those specific projects aim to improve internet access to communities who might otherwise not have a reliable connection to the internet. The McGannon Center will study their impacts on the communities they mean to serve.
“Urban WiFi kiosk networks are fascinating and important resources worthy of close study,” said Olivier Sylvain, director of the McGannon Center. “On the one hand, they create opportunities for underserved communities. But, as with many technological innovations, they also present difficult challenges.”
Much of Sylvain’s scholarship over the past decade has addressed racial and economic disparity in the deployment of communication infrastructure. “It isn’t enough,” he explains, “to observe that there is a digital divide or even that the gap in access is closing. That’s old news.” Instead, he explains, “we should be thinking seriously about how, even when new technologies are widely deployed, disparities remain in the ways people use the technologies as well as the ways in which companies or governments rely on those new technologies to surveil communities.”
Sylvain hopes the project will help identify “constructive principles on which policymakers should rely when they develop or procure communications infrastructure projects, as well as benchmarks for measuring the impact of new communications services on historically underserved communities.”
The McGannon Center is one of 20 recipients of $1.7 million in awards from the Knight to focus on research to inform the public conversation on current issues in technology policy, including free expression online and the scale and power of digital platforms.
“As we proceed from a pandemic to an election, everything about technology is getting bigger: the companies, their role in our lives, and the debate about how to manage what we say and do online,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation senior vice president and chief program officer. “From COVID-related misinformation to labeled posts by the president, it’s clear that we need to chart a path forward about how to best protect democratic values in a digital age.”