Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why It's OK to 'Steal' Wi-Fi

TIME magazine has a nice article on 'Confessions of a Wi-Fi Thief'. It basically talks about the perils of connecting to unsecured wireless networks of my neighbors. Grossman writes that "stealing" Wi-Fi might be illegal (statutes vary according to where you live) but "definitely unethical." He also mentions a recent survey that found a slim majority 53% have "stolen" Wi-Fi. This illustration from captures the gist nicely.

I like the argument against it and am inclined to believe in the justification as well. I definitely think it shouldn't be illegal to use an open Wi-Fi network, nor should it be considered unethical.

There are two reasons why "stealing" Wi-Fi isn't -- or, at least, shouldn't be -- considered theft:

1. By using a Wi-Fi network you're asking for, and receiving, permission from the owner.
When you open up your trusty laptop, check for available networks, choose one and click "Connect," you're instructing your computer hardware and software to communicate with the hardware and software that's providing the Wi-Fi network and ask permission to use the network.

When you do this, a router either grants permission, and assigns an IP address for you to use, or denies permission. If the connection simply works, it means by definition that the network is set up to automatically grant you permission to use it, and to actively provide the means for you to do so.

So attempting to connect to a Wi-Fi network (without deliberate hacking) is by definition a process of asking permission to use that network. If you get connected -- again, by definition -- then the router has granted that permission to you.

2. Your computer can't be on their Wi-Fi network unless their network is in your computer.
The conventional wisdom is that using an open Wi-Fi network is theft. But that metaphor doesn't match what really happens when you connect to a Wi-Fi network.

If anyone doesn't want people using their network, all they have to do is configure their router to stop granting permission.

Here is a link to the original article in TIME. Another excellent related story.

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