Amid coronavirus lockdown, Google helps California bridge the digital divide, but at what cost?

Silicon Valley makes California the cradle of the US tech economy, but ironically, the state is also home to a large number of digitally unconnected households. And while until now, California seemed to have bigger problems on its shoulders, the Coronavirus pandemic is making it nearly impossible for people to live close-to-normal lives without an internet connection.

As we are urged to respect social distancing measures and stay at home for as much as possible, we are also forced to transition most of our day to day activities in the online. We work from home, our children take online classes, and most of our entertainment now comes in digital format.

Never before has this digital divide been more obvious, and the situation cries for all the help it can get. But who is, indeed, actively working to help close this digital gap?

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Google provides 100,000 free Wi-Fi spots for Californians

In order to provide those in need with access to the internet, so that they can continue working or studying, the California government asked for help from the private sector. Google did not hesitate to step up in a praiseworthy way.

In April, Governor Gavin Newsom announced publicly that Google was working to provide 100,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots, to help households in need get access to the internet. These Wi-Fis will be free for at least three months and aim to help especially families with kids that need access to the internet to continue their homeschooling for the remainder of this school year.

What’s more, the company also announced they would start distributing 4,000 Chromebook laptops to students who can’t afford to have a computer at home.

Together with Google, several other tech companies announced plans to help provide the resources needs to overcome this challenging period we are facing. Charter Communications, for example, is providing nationwide free broadband and Wi-Fi access for 2 months, for customers with K-12 students and college students who become new subscribers. Charter also announced their more than 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country would also be open for public use.

Is connectivity still a luxury in the 21st century?

A few decades ago, the Internet was nowhere near as present in our everyday lives as it is now. Back then, we could indeed say it was a luxury to browse online. But now, when a large part of our day to day activities revolve around our smartphones or computers, can we still argue that access to the internet should be considered a luxury? Shouldn’t we finally accept that access to the internet is now almost as essential as access to running water, especially during a pandemic that has us stuck at home? And, if we finally accept this, then how come 20% of California students lack digital connectivity and are now forced to look for alternative ways to complete their studies?

Fortunately, donations and access to mobile hotspots helped school districts cut those numbers in half. Yet, we still have a long way to go before closing this digital gap. And while many praise Google’s help, some can’t help but wonder what this will mean for online privacy and when a VPN service will become a must for every Internet user out there.

Internet privacy, a reason for concern during lockdown?

Internet service providers have very few restrictions when it comes to managing customer data, which makes people wonder what will happen once Google gets even more access to collecting customer information.

From a legal standpoint, Google has the same power as any internet provider. However, the way they manage data, the fact that they are the number one search engine worldwide, and that Google Chrome is the most used internet browser, they could do much more with the collected data than AT&T or any other service provider.

California now has the strictest consumer data privacy law, but some believe they did so because they were constrained to do so. This makes it unclear if Google could gather all that data through the new Wi-Fi program they are implementing.

The state’s education department is responsible for distributing the hotspots, but when asked, they stated no response is yet available for the kind of data these hotspots can gather.

These concerns were raised after Verily Life Sciences, a bioresearch company owned by Alphabet, which owns Google as well, developed a free COVID-19 screening service, allowing Californians to input their symptoms and find out whether they need to be tested or not.

At first glance, this could be revolutionary for the period we live in. Still, the service required users to either link to an existing Google account, or create a new one, for authentication purposes. Upon further inspection, the project’s privacy policy states Verily may share personal information with business partners or service providers.

While their actions, as well as the actions of the entire private sector, are applaudable, one can’t help but wonder how much of it is done for the good of the less fortunate, or as a chance for these companies to grow their revenue.

What can users do to protect their data online?

Without a clear answer regarding the protection of their personal information online, users have to take matters into their own hands and keep their sensitive data away from curious eyes.

The use of a safe and secure VPN service seems to be one of the best ways internet users can protect their privacy and increase online security. Through the use of VPNs, their location, as well as their most important information is hidden, protecting their identity from websites and apps that want to track them. A VPN is especially recommended when using a public internet network, such as those made available by various service providers nationwide.

On top of a good VPN, internet users should also consider an add-on that prevents social media platforms such as Facebook from tracking your online activity. One such add-on is Facebook Container, provided by the browser Mozilla Firefox, which has reached nearly 2 million users.

The rise in popularity of such add-ons, including adblockers, shows once again people are questioning their online security and are looking for ways to keep their online anonymity.

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