Numerous websites that follow wireless news have reported about a new wireless box called Slurpr, which allows someone to aggregate up to six open wifi access points at once. In just about the next sentence, of each of these reports warns of the potential legal consequences of “stealing wifi” by using an open network that the operator does not intend for open use. Or, as Glenn Fleishman put it: “This might get you arrested six times in one day.”
But will it? And, perhaps more importantly, should it? With the rise of applications like FON, wifi enabled phones, and now the introduction of Slurpr, we need to get this issue resolved sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we can expect to see more arrests of folks unaware they are committing a crime and another equipment/application industry killed off by regulatory uncertainty.
As I have argued before, it makes much better legal and policy sense to require access point operators (and the equipment manufacturers who set the defaults) responsible for their own equipment and require them to close a network rather than to require the public to treat all open networks as off limits unless the operator somehow expressly tells the user it’s o.k. Why shouldn’t the act of blasting an open network into a publicly accessible place or onto someone else’s property be sufficient invitation to use the network, especially when it would encourage people to set power levels to appropriate levels and stop imposing interference costs on the rest of us? Why on Earth do we want a legal presumption that imposes obligations on the broader public instead of the operator, makes it much harder for people that actively want to share their networks, and encourages (rather than discourages) interference problems and poor spectrum management? Most especially, why do we do this when creating this presumption actually flies in the face of the usual legal presumptions about intrusions of private property into the public sphere?
The only answer I can come up with is that network technologies appears to have the amazing power of turning certain people’s brains into pudding and making them forget about 10,000 years of human experience of living in urban environments. For further elaboration on these themes, see below . . .