Thursday, May 13, 2010

Have some of my wireless

A while back I got into a bit of an argument with my brother regarding unsecured wireless networks. Most of what I concluded is that law should not be written by people with next to no experience in the field, as is most internet/electronics/computing law. He's a law school graduate and has passed the Georgia bar, so one can assume he has some concept of the relevant legal concepts. The problem is that there are almost no relevant concepts for this strange new world.

All current notion of theft involves exclusivity: what I have you don't have. In the physical world theft is very straightforward: you have what I own without my permission. In a digital realm, it's not so simple. I can have what is yours without you not having it. We can both have it. I didn't earn it, but I didn't deprive you of it either, so while there is clearly something wrong, theft is not the right word. Incidentally, I believe this is part of why the record companies have so many problems: they keep accusing people of theft when they haven't. Switching to calling it piracy isn't much help when we all think pirates are awesome, and pirates are thieves anyway.

To the point: I felt that it was not theft or trespassing to use an unsecured wireless network as long as the use was not reducing the effectiveness of the connection for the owner. If they were using it at something near capacity, then outside use of it would be limiting their service, and that would be theft: the bandwidth someone else has, they do not have.

I could think of no good analogies at the time, though I was confronted with many terrible ones. But finally I have it. Broadband connections are like a water pipe to the house which is always open, always running, and tends to spill out onto the sidewalk and evaporate. Most if it is excess, wasted.

There is one major problem with my assertion that use of someone else's network is not innately theft: we can't easily measure their usage. Wouldn't it be great if there were a way to ask a network and connection, "Are you busy?" But let's not stop there.

Here are the features I'd love to see:
Password/key to be 'inside' the network.
Guest access to 'outside' the network, but retaining internet access.
Outsiders could not see anything inside: no information on the computers, router, or anything besides remaining bandwidth and network name.
Insiders would have absolute priority. Outsiders would only get leftover capacity, so insiders are never slowed down.

Have this built in to every wireless router and make the default "No one without the key can use this network for anything". After all, people have the right to decide how their own resources are used. Instead the sharing would be an option, a way to make some use of excess or unused bandwidth without going totally unsecure with no password or priorities.

If you happen to run into a network like this and use it a few times, drop a dollar on their doorstep and a note thanking them for the generosity.

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