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Despite the longstanding association of pay phones with criminality (real or imagined), not every city is calling for their removal. New York City’s LinkNYC, which went live in February 2016, is an ambitious initiative to repurpose more than 7,500 pay phones into internet hotspots and charging stations. Over the last year, Broadway and 3rd St. in Manhattan have become LinkNYC thoroughfares, bringing free Wi-Fi and domestic calling to the masses.
But the same complaints that plagued pay phones for decades persist in these new iterations. Some homeless people and other users have built encampments around the kiosks, overstaying their welcome by watching movies or playing music for hours and running afoul of loitering ordinances. Vandalism is common and expected, so the high-tech kiosks are equipped with sensors to detect damage, graffiti, and environmental changes. Some residents even claim the stations have been capitalized by drug dealers, a 21st-century update to the phone booth as a drug lord’s corner office.
As of now, no new legislation has been introduced to specifically lay down new laws for the kiosks, but pre-existing ordinances still apply. Violations relating to loitering, vandalism, and public nuisance written in part for the era of pay phones still put users in vulnerable positions. In regards to electronic data, Katz v. United States becomes ever more relevant given the increased threats to privacy in the digital age.
One might wonder what will happen to people in areas like the South Bronx, Harlem, or Jackson Heights when pay phones completely vanish. On the one hand, one in five Americans rely on their smartphone as their sole access to the internet. On the other, the pay phone’s service is crucial for the dwindling numbers of people without access to cellular networks, and the phone’s removal may cut them off from a world that increasingly eschews face-to-face interaction.
As cities become even more connected and surveilled, laws will need to strike a balance between old and new technologies. Public-nuisance legislation offers one approach; it is written broadly enough to cover infrastructure in all phases of technological development. But unless forced to clarify the letter of the law, city ordinances targeting criminal activity can continue to be distorted to target those already put at a disadvantage by public policy and socioeconomic conditions. Technological innovation had a role in the decline of the pay phone. But fear and paranoia did it in.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.