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Local heroes

leonia-nj.pngClashes between local jurisdictions and the internet are not new. Currently, the biggest and furthest-reaching such case is the Microsoft Ireland case, more properly United States v. Microsoft Corp. That case, having moved through the lower courts, is due to be argued in the Supreme Court on February 27. The case tests the question of who has jurisdiction over data stored by a company from one nation on servers situated in a different country, and represents both a who's-in-charge dispute and a clash of competing values for privacy, particularly given the US's attitude toward non-citizens.

Such disputes are happening at all scales and in new and interesting ways. This week, Leonia, New Jersey, population under 10,000 and situated an interstate's breadth from the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, made itself semi-famous by declaring 60 of its side streets off-limits to people using them as a GPS-recommended cut-through. The applicable $200 fine appears less intended to punish drivers than to push GPS app developers to remove the streets from their recommendations and think more closely about how much traffic they're sending down streets that weren't built for the load. Residents will have identifying yellow hang tags.

The comments under CBS's story about this plan are typically polarized. About two-thirds seem to think this is unconstitutional ("the 'everything I don't like clause', I think?" a lawyer friend quips) or a Democratic plot to bar people they don't like, along with a bunch of braggadocio about their own reaction if stopped (as if). The rest are generally more sympathetic but advocate instead putting up signs that say "No Through Traffic", installing speed bumps, and/or lowering the posted speed limit to 25 or even 20 miles per hour.

Hiding among them is the occasional poster with actual local knowledge who has seen the congestion for themselves. OpenStreetMap's view of the area (above) shows the problem exactly: there's a straight line through Leonia while the interstates make a loop around the town to approach the bridge. So the trip through Leonia is geographically shorter - and in rush hour probably feels quicker, even if the reality is only a couple of hundred seconds. Most commuters would rather feel they were moving at will instead of trapped at other's mercy. Leonia, which Wikipedia says was formed in 1894, probably negotiated intensely for that loop when the interstates were being built, to ensure that the vast majority of all that traffic would bypass their town. Before apps, that would have been true; only inveterate map examiners or people who lived, or had lived, locally would have found the shortcut. Now that GPS has eliminated the need to learn geography hordes can be directed to it.

The results are not so different from 2016's skirmishes with Pokémon Go: apps centralize geography that we, the people, experience locally. Neither GPS vendors nor the Pokémon people send out mass consultations beforehand. Abrupt changes in the amount of traffic careening through your neighborhood are direct consequences of the "Ask forgiveness, not permission" style of doing business. As software's effects increasingly become physical, there will be more and more of these conflicts, and they're not easily solved because probably all of us would like to have the option of taking the cut-through for ourselves, even if we righteously think that everyone else should stay on the interstate and spare Leonia's roads the wear and tear and its residents the annoyance.

I'm reliably advised that if there were a relevant law to bar Leonia from making this rule it would probably be the Dormant Commerce Clause, which (says Wikipedia; I am not a lawyer) leaves states free to pass legislation pertaining to federal commerce laws on any point on which these are silent as long as the state law does not discriminate against or impose a burden on interstate commerce. Case law from the trucking industry balances safety against the burden on trucking companies. The Leonia law applies to all non-residents; in fact, the most likely people to be affected are commuters living in New Jersey. The town's mayor cited a US Supreme Court case that upheld a town's right to control access to roads as long as residents and emergency vehicles are not denied access without giving its name. As a best guess, he means 1981's Memphis v. Greene, which upheld Memphis, Tennessee's right to close a portion of a street to control traffic and promote children's safety, which had been challenged on grounds of racial discrimination.

Does every local area have to correct every app and service, or do startups have to keep abreast of the desires of millions of local areas? Whichever way that goes, how can it be enforced?

Figure it takes 20 years for an issue like this to arrive at top-level courts (the idea that data in a remote foreign location should be beyond the reach of national law dates to the early 1990s). On that basis, we'll be watching clashes between app developers sending people careening around the landscape and local residents develop until about 2025. San Francisco is already beginning to restrict delivery robots and require them to have permits and human chaperones. Autonomous vehicles with identical mapping systems should nicely explode the problem, although we scarcely need them when Uber all on its own has done so much to rile regulators worldwide.

Illustrations: The geography of Leonia, NJ (OpenStreetMap).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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