BBSJ has frequently acknowledged that features of our digital society, including technologies, can be enablers or “dividers.” Their application can produce significant change by creating opportunities or yielding devastating and pernicious results.
Such thoughts seem to be shared by those who are questioning Microsoft’s new “Pedestrian Route Production” application patent. Many are calling it the “Avoid Ghetto” application and weighing what it could mean for advertisers and consumers.
New Mobile Application Helps ‘Avoid the Ghetto?’
According to CBS News, the new patent is a GPS application planned for use in mobile phones that will have the ability to guide pedestrians away from routes that include “unsafe neighborhoods.”
It is unclear what type of metrics the application will use in its algorithms to lead users away from high crime – or even what type of crimes the application considers.
BBSJ contacted Microsoft for additional details about the new application and asked for response to criticisms lodged against it. However, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company was not able to accommodate the request.
Can the App Enable Redlining?
A copy of the patent published by CBS News states that “the disclosed innovation produces routes that are intended to be taken by a pedestrian” and acknowledges that “various features can integrate with route presentment, such as integrating an advertisement targeted to a pedestrian with a direction set.”
But some maintain that the application could lead to unfair treatment by advertisers in neighborhoods marked as “unsafe.”
Historically, some companies have engaged in practices in which deliberate efforts have been made to prevent the advertising and deployment of their products in predominately minority communities or communities that are considered “high crime.”
Many maintain that these practices, collectively known as “redlining,” have prevented the availability of an array of products and services in certain areas, including housing, banking, insurance, and even broadband Internet service.
Last year, however, the FCC decried the practice of discriminatory advertising in the broadcast industry, aiming to curb the “No Urban” and “No Spanish” dictates scheme, where advertisers refuse to run ads on broadcast stations geared toward minorities and Latinos.
Public Opinion ‘Divided’
It is likely that due to its controversial nature, the app’s release will create divisiveness. With few details available from Microsoft about the app, the question is how much. Already, provocative opinions cutting both ways are being voiced online.
A Northern Colorado real estate broker authored a post acknowledging that some could view the app as racist. However, he also contended that he had not seen “any true ghettos” in the area in which he practices, but he was “often asked to give his opinion of how safe” a neighborhood is or areas that he “would recommend avoiding.”
“The real estate commission does not allow real estate agents to offer those kinds of opinions, because they want to avoid ‘steering’ or ‘redlining,’” the broker posted. “I am required to direct my clients to resources such as the websites for the local police department or sheriff’s office. With the introduction of this new app, that may all be irrelevant. “
Ross Kenneth Urken of AOL referenced the “racist element” existing in current debate about the app. He quoted Sarah E. Chinn, the author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism, as deeming the app “pretty appalling” and also stating that “an application like this defines crime pretty narrowly, since all crimes happen in all kinds of neighborhoods. I can’t imagine that there aren’t perpetrators of domestic violence, petty and insignificant drug possession, fraud, theft, and rape in every area.”
Chinn also contended that “white-collar crime would not necessarily register on this app and as a result, Microsoft “defines crime statistics as products of race and class identity.”
“A more useful app would be for young black men to be able to map blocks with the highest risks of their being pulled over or stopped on the street by police … that phenomenon affects many more people than the rare occurrences of random violence against motorists driving through ‘bad’ neighborhoods,” Chinn reportedly said.
However, in discussions of the “Ghetto App” and what it might mean, it is critical that the debate emphasizes how the App’s emergence illustrates the importance of the responsible use of broadband technologies.
What is as equally important is ensuring that the app will not facilitate the cessation of broadband deployment to areas that need it most.
As stakeholders fight to close the digital divide, no person, no map coordinates, no crime statistics (however skewed), and no disposition of fear should prevent the universal deployment or availability of potentially life-changing broadband Internet.
- Kenneth Mallory is an award-winning journalist and attorney who has free-lanced for several publications, in addition to serving as a general assignment reporter for the Washington Afro-American Newspaper. He earned his B.A. magna cum laude from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in addition to his J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law.