Lately, there has been a lot of discussion on Wi-Fi access sharing. This is not a new topic but it has probably found a new life with FON building a business model around people sharing their Wi-Fi access and FON getting major funding from both Skype and Google. I probably have to thank Martin Varsavsky for all the press and blog coverage it is generating and the material I can use in my research.Lock

Since I am still in the middle of my Wi-Fi survey (you should take it if you haven’t done so already) that focuses on these issues of sharing, usability and legal implications, I won’t comment on the topic now but just provide some pointers and “interesting” quotes. I am also preparing a case study on FON, big municipal Wi-Fi initiatives like San Francisco TechConnect and the likes.
It is amazing what people will say to defend one or the other position of this topic. Especially the analogies!

From the New York Times story titled Hey Neighbor, Stop Piggybacking on My Wireless (Mar 5th 2006)

For a while, the wireless Internet connection Christine and Randy Brodeur installed last year seemed perfect. They were able to sit in their sunny Los Angeles backyard working on their laptop computers.

But they soon began noticing that their high-speed Internet access had become as slow as rush-hour traffic on the 405 freeway.

“I didn’t know whether to blame it on the Santa Ana winds or what,” recalled Mrs. Brodeur, the chief executive of Socket Media, a marketing and public relations agency.

The “what” turned out to be neighbors who had tapped into their system.

(…)

But they soon began noticing that their high-speed Internet access had become as slow as rush-hour traffic on the 405 freeway.

“I didn’t know whether to blame it on the Santa Ana winds or what,” recalled Mrs. Brodeur, the chief executive of Socket Media, a marketing and public relations agency.

The “what” turned out to be neighbors who had tapped into their system.

(…)

Many home network owners admit that they are oblivious to piggybackers.

Some, like Marla Edwards, who think they have locked intruders out of their networks, learn otherwise. Ms. Edwards, a junior at Baruch College in New York, said her husband recently discovered that their home network was not secure after a visiting friend with a laptop easily hopped on.

“There’s no gauge, no measuring device that says 48 people are using your access,” Ms. Edwards said.

(…)

Most people just plug the thing in,” he said of those who buy wireless routers. “Ninety percent of the time it works. You stop at that point and don’t bother to turn on its security.”

(…)

When Ms. Ramirez asked the man what he was doing, he said he was stealing a wireless Internet connection because he did not have one at home. She was amused but later had an unsettling thought: “Oh my God. He could be stealing my signal.”

Yet some six months later, Ms. Ramirez still has not secured her network.

(…)

Beth Freeman, who lives in Chicago, has her own Internet access, but it is not wireless. Mostly for the convenience of using the Internet anywhere in her apartment, Ms. Freeman, 58, said that for the last six months she has been using a wireless network a friend showed her how to tap into.

“I feel sort of bad about it, but I do it anyway,” Ms. Freeman said her of Internet indiscretions. “It just seems harmless.”

And if she ever gets caught?

“I’m a grandmother,” Ms. Freeman said. “They’re not going to yell at an old lady. I’ll just play the dumb card.”

(…)

For the Brodeurs in Los Angeles, a close reading of their network’s manual helped them to finally encrypt their network. The Brodeurs told their neighbors that the network belonged to them and not to the neighborhood. While apologetic, some neighbors still wanted access to it.

“Some of them asked me, ‘Could we pay?’ But we didn’t want to go into the Internet service provider business,” Mrs. Brodeur said. “We gave some weird story about the network imposing some sort of lockdown protocol.”

From the Slashdot comments on the story

I think a lot of people have an open WiFi connection for the rest of the world to use. This however is not only because they want to give some protest but also to simply add a other node to the ever growing number of open “uplinks”.

As more and more people are doing so at the moment it becomes easy for traveling laptop users to get online everywhere they want. Closing you “uplink” will become more and more rude in the global opinion I think. Sharing the connection will become more natural to people as they become more aware of the benefit they have from the open uplinks offered by other users.

WiFi will become eventually something like opensource code, sharing and be shared only here we are not talking about code but about internet access. You give access to users and those users give you access in return.

From a post on TechDirt Are You Liable If Someone Does Something Illegal On Your WiFi? (Mar 20th 2006)

For years, whenever the press has written one of their fear-mongering stories about open WiFi, they almost always include some tidbit about how if someone uses your network to do something illegal, you can be arrested for it. It’s one of the popular open WiFi horror stories — but is it true? Well, of course, you can be arrested, but it’s unlikely that there would be any legal grounds for the arrest.

(…)

While it is true that they can go after you, there are valid legal defenses for this — as has been discussed for years. If you are legally sharing your WiFi, then you are a service provider, and under current laws you are not liable for what others do with the service. That’s what it says in the Communications Decency Act, and it clearly applies here. In fact, we’ve even heard stories of people purposely leaving their WiFi open for this very reason — as it gives them a legal defense should the industry ever come after them.

In the comments of the post on digg.com (Mar 20th 2006)

You are right. If you don’t secure your wireless, you are asking for it. You deserve everything that you could get. If your grandma has wireless, and she doesn’t secure it, she deserves it too.

(…)

This article is false, to be a service provider you have to have contracts and the ability to release contact info of your subscribers to the authoritys should an electronic crime take place, other wise you are fully resposible for all activity of that connection… Having an open wifi connection does not mean no one useing that connection has to take resposibility for it.

(…)

Actually there’s nothing in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that says a service provider must have contracts or the ability to identify it’s users:

Definition: For purposes of section 512(c), a “service provider” is defined as a provider of online services or network access, or the operator of facilities therefor, including an entity offering the transmission, routing, or providing of connections for digital online communications, between or among points specified by a user, of material of the user’s choosing, without modification to the content of the material as sent or received.

Under that definition, any given person with an open access point is a “service provider”.

(…)

The analogy of an unprotected WiFi Network as an ‘open door’ is not very suitable. A comparisson to a porch light is much better. They both emit an EM signal when left running by the owner, and they both ‘shine’ in all directions unless screened.
So if someone sits in my driveway and uses the light from my porch to write a fake check, or to forge a document etc. Is the owner of the porch light responsible, only because he could have put up a screen that stops the light from reaching the driveway?

(…)

If the person enters your property line without permission than its trespass but if the wireless signal bleeds beyond your property boundaries into public areas and other peoples property then they are not committing a crime
.Its like a fruit tree that overhangs a fence if the tree has a piece of fruit that is accessible in a public area like a footpath than the person can take that fruit legally ,is it morally right to to take the fruit is another question.

(…)

Actually, the old way of thinking as far as “signal bleeding beyond the edge of your property line” simply does not work in the modern era, when it comes to technology. If that were the case, people could never be found guilty of trespassing when they hack into a private network. For example, you figure out the modem number to some government server. You dial in from home. Technically, you are at home and *not* at the government facility in question. The “signal” of their modem has crossed their property line and come into your home, by way of the phone line. Using your logic, a person couldn’t be held responsible for their actions, since they were acting upon something that was freely accessible from their own home. We all know that people get busted for this kind of stuff all the time, however.

You can let the radio waves pass over you all day long. As soon as you use those signals to actually become a member of that other person’s network, you put yourself at risk of prosecution.

The moral of the story is don’t take without asking, even if it’s an open wireless network that falls right into your lap.

(…)

I seriously hate analogies when it comes to this subject. Nobody ever seems to get it right. Nobody using your connection is really trespassing like they would be if they just walked into your unlocked house. I like to think of it more as that person is visiting.

If somebody knocks before they come in and another member of the family automatically lets them in, it would be REALLY hard to sue that person for “using your space.” If you can’t control your own family, it really doesn’t make sense to be suing other people for consuming your precious living space either, though. It does however make sense to sue that person if you tell them to get out and they stick around making it hard for you to get things done around the house.

Somebody who is just using their wireless card has a list of available access points and has the ability to simply click “connect.” The wireless card then asks the router for an IP address, and in most cases allows your card inside automatically. If you can’t control your own router, it really doesn’t make much sense to be suing people for using your precious bandwidth. If you can somehow find out who is physically accessing your network and tell that person to stop, and they continue to use your network, it would then be fair to apply the appropriate charges.

Simply making it illegal to enter any body’s property or wireless network without direct permission would be HORRIBLE. There is such thing as implied permission, people. I can cut through some body’s yard if I want to and there’s no fence there, if they want to stop me from ever doing it again all they need to do is tell me to stop. Those people wouldn’t be able to chase me down and sue me for doing it, the judge would just ask why they didn’t use a fence. Just because that person didn’t know what a fence is or how to install one wouldn’t be a valid excuse for the judge that knows better.

It is interesting to see how people try to explain and compare the situation of open Wi-Fi access to familiar activities and how much they disagree on how to see it in terms of both social norms and legal implications. Any opinion or first-hand experience you want to share with me?

Photo Credit: Combination Composition, originally uploaded by B Tal.