Bandwidth: Is stealing always wrong?

A recent article highlighted the dilemma of finding an open wireless network. Should a good neighbour confess to taking a free ride?

You know you've hit the big time when your moral dilemmas start showing up in the "Ethicist" column in The New York Times.

In last Sunday's edition, a reader wrote to say she'd "accidentally discovered that the wireless Internet card in my laptop lets me access the Web in my apartment" via what is a neighbour's Wi-Fi connection. She went on to say she only used it to "check email, which will not affect my neighbour's usage." She then asks whether what she's doing is wrong and whether she should offer to pay part of the monthly connect fee.

If you want to read the column, click here. The NYT wants you to register, but it's free.

Forgetting that the reader sounds too tech-savvy to be in a moral quandary over Napstering a little bandwidth, America's newspaper-of-record-slash-arbiter-of-ethics essentially tells her to come clean about her usage -- as long as she can identify who's sharing the wealth. If she can't (which is pretty likely), the NYT counsels her to go ahead and take a free ride -- but not to overdo it.

I think the Times misses a crucial point here. For me the most important moral question isn't whether you should use your neighbour's bandwidth, but whether you should tell him that his network is wide open to everyone in a 150-foot radius -- neighbours, kids parked outside, just anybody. And that some of those people may be prowling that unintentionally open network (and hard drive) for personal information -- maybe even identity theft.

So the first thing a good neighbour would do is go over and tell the network's owner that you can access their network, then offer to turn on the basic WEP security. I'd then offer to make sure that the owner's PC has file sharing turned off (or that it's at least protected with a decent password).

As the Times points out, setting up any kind of formal sharing arrangement would violate most every DSL or cable modem user agreement in existence. While you probably wouldn't have the lawyers (or their process servers) knocking on your door, don't make the mistake of some who have actually advertised their open network node. Contractual wrongdoing is a definite no-no, and drawing attention to same -- unless you have a powerful attorney, lots of bucks, and are trying to make some loony point about a "free Internet" -- is just dumb.

Not that this is stopping some bandwidth rebels out there. Perhaps their contract disobedience will eventually result in loosened terms or "shareable" connections for "just a few dollars more each month" (as the ads might say). Maybe a few people will share their connections with lots of friends, and local providers won't be able to recoup their investment and will just go into another line of work.

More likely neither of those things will happen, and the quiet thievery will become an accepted part of life -- sort of the way Microsoft Office used to be copied to every computer you owned, until Microsoft added an authorisation code for every two copies and spoiled the fun. (Which they had every right to do and should serve as a reminder that someday all parties come to an end.)

What would I do?

I used to have two networks at my house, one open and the other password-protected. I'm not sure anyone besides me ever used the open network, though I told my neighbours they were welcome to try it out if they wanted to see how broadband worked.

I'd be fine with occasional use by outsiders, but would shut down the free connection if people started using it so much that they really should have gotten a connection of their own.

Take the woman who wrote to the Times. All she wanted to do was check email. But what if she was checking work-related email using the neighbour's shared connection? That to me is the perfect example of someone who ought to pay -- after all they are getting paid to read the email -- rather than steal bandwidth.

I know others feel differently about this. But if you find an open network, consider that the person who owns it probably doesn't know it's open and offer to help close it for them. Open home networks are identity theft networks waiting to happen. And it doesn't take an Ethicist to figure out that one.