“Much Ado About Nothing:” NYC Withholds Information on Empty Internet Piping

If you ever want to ruin a party in NYC (and/or potentially start a riot), just say the names Time Warner, RCN, Verizon, etc. and watch the anger snowball.* However, in reality, the New Yorkers who can get worked up over the high-priced, low-quality Internet service in their apartments are the lucky ones; many of NYC’s poorest residents do not have access to any high speed Internet.

Susan Crawford, a Harvard Law School Professor, hopes to change the inequitable distribution of high speed Internet access in NYC. She wants to provide information to small Internet Service Providers about the location of empty conduit (i.e., the pipes under NYC streets through which Internet cables are run), so that they can move into underserviced neighborhoods and provide relatively cheap high speed Internet. Professor Crawford teamed up with the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic to file a FOIL request for that information.

The FOIL request has met resistance on two fronts. First, NYC claims that disclosing information regarding the locations of empty conduit will endanger the city’s Internet infrastructure, putting “high value” targets at risk. Second, the major Internet Service Providers (e.g., Time Warner) have intervened, claiming that the location of empty conduit cannot be disclosed because it constitutes their trade secrets.

Last week, MFIA Clinical Fellow Hannah Bloch-Wehba argued the case for Professor Crawford, attacking both bases for withholding the requested information under FOIL. First, Bloch-Wehba argued that disclosing the location of empty pipes would not make it possible for terrorists to knock out the Internet at the New York Stock Exchange or the United Nations by targeting manholes within underserved neighborhoods. Second, Bloch-Wehba argued that empty piping locations cannot be Verizon or AT&T’s trade secret, because it is neither secret nor their information.

The clinic currently awaits a ruling in the case, which has been making its way through the New York court system for years. The case stands to be perhaps the most intense legal battles over empty pipes to ever be litigated in New York (and potentially U.S.). It may very well signal a new low for government transparency, when this much of an ado is made over the location of pipes with nothing in them.  

*As a native New Yorker, just typing the names for this blog post nearly threw me into frenzy.