Tomorrow's NYTimes has Randy Cohen/The Ethicist (sorry, no userland link on this one, so see below) starting off with a letter from Siona Listokin of Berkeley asking about "borrowing" the neighbor's wifi. Mr. Manners responds that it's polite to ask consent to use, and offer to pitch in for the cost. But Mike Godwin of Public Knowledge is quoted and the various issues are discussed about using wifi, what ISP's terms of service say verses what is fair, and whether those TOS's stifle innovation.
By RANDY COHEN
Published: February 8, 2004
I accidentally discovered that the wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) card in my laptop lets me access the Web in my apartment. Clearly a neighbor has set up an access point with a signal strong enough to reach my kitchen. I use the Internet at home only to check e-mail, which will not affect my neighbor's usage. Can I use his signal? Should I offer to pay part of his monthly charge? Siona Listokin, Berkeley, Calif.
If you can easily ID your neighbor and you regularly use his signal, you should ask his consent and offer to share the costs of this shared resource. But what about the more common situation, when you can't identify those whose wireless access points you encounter? ''If you're driving around town and someone's left a node open and you pop on and use it just to download some e-mail, feel free,'' advises Mike Godwin, senior technology counsel for Public Knowledge, a public interest group in Washington concerned with technology and intellectual property.
Godwin is persuasive. The person who opened up access to you is unlikely even to know, let alone mind, that you've used it. If he does object, there's easy recourse: nearly all wireless setups offer password protection. And while the failure to lock a door may indicate carelessness, not consent, in this case it does suggest indifference. Godwin does warn of the tragedy of the commons, however, which here means you have an obligation not to use too much bandwidth -- by downloading massive music files, for example, which would inconvenience other users.
But do you cheat the service provider, if not an individual consumer? Is there a free-rider problem? Time Warner Cable says there is, and it has taken action against those who have touted the availability of an open Wi-Fi node on computer bulletin boards. The company argues, in effect, that while you may have a glass of water at a neighbor's, you may not run a pipe from his place to yours.
Property rights, as understood by Time Warner Cable, say, are worthy of consideration, but overemphasizing them may stifle the development of the public good that is universally available wireless Internet access. Consider the Interstate highway system or any public library: enormously useful institutions whose costs and benefits we all share. Cellphone service offers another approach, enabling anyone who pays a monthly fee to make a call from anyplace in the world (until he stumbles into a dead zone).
''This is a period of transition, and the natural reaction of some institutions is to clamp down,'' Godwin concludes. He's right. But that does not create a moral imperative to defer to those who do. Rather, you may use but not overuse Wi-Fi hot spots you encounter.