Here Comes The Bigger Debate On The Legality Of Open WiFi Usage

from the this-ought-to-be-pointless dept

Earlier this week, we pointed to the story of a man in Florida being charged as a felon for simply using an open WiFi network. That was based on a locally published news story in Florida, but that story went big yesterday when the Associated Press wrote up an account of it leading to a much bigger discussion (and a few people submitting it here, even though we’d written about it earlier in the week). Most of the new coverage has just rewritten the original story, but has a more detailed question and answer discussing all the legal questions associated with accessing open WiFi, and concluding, basically, that it’s an open question. Of course, some people have been having this discussion for years. In the end, the real question is what is being “lost” here. In most cases, absolutely nothing — which is why it’s hard to consider using an open WiFi access point as “theft.” In fact, some (though, not many) ISPs consider it a good idea and downright neighborly. The actual laws on the matter are way too vague — but looking at the reality of the situation should lead people to recognize that this is not theft at all.

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Comments on “Here Comes The Bigger Debate On The Legality Of Open WiFi Usage”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Stealing Wi-Fi?

What did this guy take from the homeowners by walking in their “open door”???

Did he take thier computers?

Did he take their DATA?

No he took only bandwith, which they buy in unlimited chunks, it is not like running an extension cord to an outlet or a hose to a faucet where it is billed by volume. So it did not cost the homeowners any more.

The only impact- if any- to the homeowners is a slower download.

A felony…..I disagree with.

Hazama says:


September 16, 2004… someone was arrested and charged for stealing my open internet connection. What was interesting is, the only reason he got “caught” was because he was parked in my neighbor’s driveway and refused to leave. So they called the cops. He would have gotten away with it if he only would have played nice. The guy plead guilty, so I didn’t have to testify, even though I was subpeona’d… so yeah… this is really not new news… but since I live in a remote section of Northern California… it didn’t quite have the editorial impact of a larger media outlet.

— Haz

emj says:

How do you tell "public" from "private"?

What’s the difference between someone’s unencrypted personal access point and the local coffee shop’s offering of free wireless? How can someone tell which is open to the public, and which would be a felony to access? The SSID, when half of them use “linksys”? The physical sign at the coffee shop saying there’s free wireless at their location? What about the close-by resident who’s access point offers a better signal than the coffee shop’s?

No, you indicate that your AP is private by configuring it to be encrypted. It’s just too ambiguous otherwise, especially for non-technical users who just turn on their laptops and use the first network to pop up.

Hazama says:

Re: How do you tell

Are you linux guys or Mac guys… or just democrats? Because your arguments are retarded. I have since encrypted my network, but there are a LOT of people out there who aren’t educated enough to do so. Stealing or not, the reason this guy is going away is because of WHAT he was doing while on my network.

I think it’s a total grey area, and I refuse to believe that this is a victimless crime. If I didn’t know the guy, but he asked to use my internet, I probably would have let the guy sit on my lawn for a couple of minutes… but because he didn’t, I have no pity for what happened.

If a homeless guy mugs you, takes your cash… you get angry. If he asks, and you give him some, fine. But it’s a service that I pay for, just like cable tv. I wouldn’t want anyone else to steal that, either.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: How do you tell

But… he wasn’t arrested for what he was doing on the network. He was arrested just for using the network. So it’s quite different.

As for your final analogy, that’s not correct either. You use the term “steal” which is inaccurate. If something were stolen, it would be missing or lost. There’s nothing missing or lost here. No one is harmed.

The best analogy I’ve heard so far is that this is, honestly, the same thing as if I had a large spotlight in front of my house, and the light went out into the street. If someone sat in the street and read by my light, is that stealing the light?

Because, honestly, this *IS* the same thing. The guy who was arrested wasn’t on anyone’s property. He was sitting in the street. And the WiFi network went beyond the other guy’s property, so that it seeped out into the street… where anyone could use it. So, how is that criminal?

Beyond that, the fact that most computers try to automatically associate with open WiFi networks, you could be a felon twenty times over just by driving through a random neighborhood.

Doesn’t that all seem a little silly?

Notacop says:

Re: Re: Re: How do you tell

the only problem with the spotlight idea is that of Satellite TV.

Direct TV sends satellite signal all over the US and it flows over into canada and mexico.

Those in canada and mexico cannot LEGALLY subscribe to the service.

If they get equipment they can decode the signals that are bombarding them.

Are they stealing service?

DTV is not out anything as they are sending the signal anyway.

There is no lost revenue because they cannot become subscribers.

I am not sure how I stand on this one.

As far as what he was doing on the network if it was standard internet browsing then I see no problem.

If he used the wifi to try and browse files on the computer to get bank info, or anything like that at all then I would see a legal issue.

Flamsmark (user link) says:

Permission not Given?

Law describes the crime of which he is accused as something along the lines of accessing an electronic network or system without permission to access said network or system.

Its a good thing that he was given permission to access the network then. His computer sent a standard TCP/IP message to the access point requesting a DHCP lease on a dynamic IP address. His computer said ‘can I access this network?’ The access point responded by giving his computer the credentials neccessary to access the network. That would be an unequivocable ‘yes, you may access this network, and here are your logon details.’ The owner of the access point decided to set up an automated system to give people premission to access the network [an unencrypted network which will use a DHCP server to assign IP addresses automatically].

Would the guy still be guilty [note: ‘guilty’, not ‘been caught’] if he drove by with a laptop on and it automatically connected because both systems were using 802.11g and TCP/IP?

Steve Marching says:

stealing internet

There ar two “little problems” I have not seen exposed in the comments from all wizards here, I’d like to see them commented to gain the knowledge.

It is known that every computer using your internet slows it down… if you work through your internet connection and pay for high speed because you need it…. doesn’t an unauthorized user affect your work-business-income?

and….. to use your internet, this user had gained access to your network….. with little knowledge it can go into your computer, folders, archives, everything that is accessible on the network….. it is safe for us to leave the connections open? Of course not… but much people lacks the know how to secure their connection. Please comment.

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