Is It Okay To Steal Internet Bandwidth From Your Neighbor?

People find the most interesting ways to justify something that is obviously wrong.

Over at The New York Times, Helen Rubenstein, a Professor at Brooklyn College, laments the fact that she recently found herself unable to access her neighbors wi-fi networks after doing so with little apparent regret for five years:

Suddenly disconnected, I realized how lucky I’d been all those years, having that tremendous body of information and awesome communication technology at my fingertips, all basically free. It may have been unfair, but I don’t believe I was stealing: the owners’ leaving their networks password-free was essentially a gift, an ethereal gesture of kindness. Sometimes I’d imagine my anonymous benefactors, those people behind Netgear 1 or belkin54g, thinking, “Well, I have Internet to spare.”

And, really, who doesn’t? Home wireless networks can usually support five or more computers, yet there are only about 1.4 computers per American household.

For a few blindered weeks, I debated whether or not to finally “buy” the Internet. The whole system, though, seemed wasteful: paying a company to come wire my apartment, then paying a monthly fee so that I could maintain my own private territory within the cloud of 20 or so wireless networks that were already humming around my apartment. It would be all the more wasteful given the likelihood that, just as cellphones made landlines optional, smartphones and tablets will soon replace the need for home networks at all.

Why couldn’t I instead shell out a nominal fee — to someone, anyone — to partake of the riches that were all around me in abundance?

Of course that isn’t what Rubenstein was doing. Instead of, say, paying her neighbors under the table for the right to access their wi-fi network (something that likely would have  been a violation of the Terms of Service between the neighbor and their ISP, by the way), she just accessed whatever unsecured network she could find. From the column, it doesn’t even appear that she told the neighbors she was doing it. Much like the people who refused to recognize the reality of music piracy during the Napster era, Rubenstein finds a way to justify her theft:

Paying for Internet access, after all, isn’t like paying for cable TV, where cable providers pay cable networks in turn. My establishing a new network instead of sharing with neighbors does nothing to benefit the Web sites whose content benefits me and whose value to advertisers is based on views and visits.

Nor is it like paying for phone service, where the physical object that makes and receives calls is inseparable from your unique number. My e-mail address is utterly portable: it’s not bound to an I.P. address or one computer — and, like the vast majority of the Internet’s services and information, it’s free.

What Rubenstein ignores, of course, is the fact that the access fee that her neighbors pay to the ISP are in part meant to pay for the costs associated with maintaining and expanding the network. By leeching off her neighbors rather than paying for it, she was using a service she hadn’t paid for, and she was stealing both from her neighbors and the ISP.

Rubsenstein goes on:

In an ideal world, the Internet would be universally available to anyone able to receive it. Promisingly, the Federal Communications Commission in September announced that it would open up unused analog airwaves for high-speed public wireless use, which could lead to gratis hotspots spreading across cities and through many rural areas.

But an Internet as freely obtainable as broadcast TV hasn’t yet arrived.

Of course, even if that day arrives, the Internet still won’t be free, it’s just that the costs of maintaining the network will be paid for by other means, like higher taxes. And if the U.S. Postal Service is any indication, a government-run ISP will be inefficient, unresponsive, and inferior to the private alternatives. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, Their Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Internet. Unless you’re name is Helen Rubenstein and you steal it.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CGHill says:

    If the broadcast-TV comparison is to hold, “free” wi-fi should be supported by advertising – and won’t that be a kick in the browser?

  2. G.A.P.THEORY says:

    It’s called sharing Doug, It makes it ok, calling it sharing.

  3. john personna says:

    Her error was in not asking her neighbors if they were offering free access.

    Some do. Fon is about that.

    Now, in terms of ISPs and their rights/responsibilities, it gets back to what they mean when they say we “get” umpty-ump megabytes per second, or per month, on our contract. If we really get it, we paid for it, and we can offer it Fon-style.

    (What I hate is the implication that I get umpty-ump megabytes “except” … insert ISP strategic vision here.)

    Or, we can lock down our networks. I lock down mine for security/liability reasons. I’d rather not explain to the FBI that it wasn’t I who did whatever …

  4. Brett says:

    That sounds like a pretty dumb idea on her part. It’s not just that anyone can access an unsecured wireless network – just about anyone else can listen in, too, and decrypt the traffic going over it. She put herself at risk of identity theft, etc for years.

    In any case, what would help stop this would be if wireless router software made you set up the security as part of installing it. It usually just lets you install it and turn it on without making you set up the security to use it (and preferably WPA and WPA2 security – WEP is worthless).

  5. This woman doesn’t seem to realize – or care – that this is also a major liability issue for her neighbours as well. I can’t say how many people I’ve heard of get into trouble for things they didn’t download; in my state, someone actually got into a lot of hot water for child pornography, and it took a heavy – and highly intrusive – investigation to determine that the owners of the connection weren’t the ones downloading the kiddie porn, and that it was someone wardriving his account.

    Thankfully, most modern wireless routers come with decent default security out of the box that even a luddite can figure out, and they’re starting to get why it’s a really good idea to take advantage of it.

  6. Brian Lehman says:

    I’m guessing her specialty isn’t economics. The woman is entirely ignorant as to some basic facts. Your ISP isn’t charging you to support the websites you view – they are charging you for the costs associated with bringing the entire world to your living room. And the real kicker is that she believes publicly available Internet would be “free”. I cannot get over how many people believe that if it is provided by government it has no cost.

    But then again, she could be an economist. Paul Krugman believes in magical money trees, after all.

  7. Herb says:

    “the owners’ leaving their networks password-free was essentially a gift, an ethereal gesture of kindness.”

    Not really, but the fact of the matter is that an unsecured network is free for anyone to use. It’s actually kind of the point. You can’t expect the network to detect which machine belongs to the guy who paid the bill without any input.

    We shouldn’t assume that the guy with the unsecured network is too dumb to set it up with a password. We should assume that he knows how, and chooses not to.

  8. John Burgess says:

    Keep your WiFi network locked down, but make arrangements with neighbors who use other modes of Internet connectivity to have occasional password driven access to their networks. Let them access yours, too, of course. This is for the times when one’s own Internet goes down but you really need to be online. It’s the rare occasion indeed when several modes are all knocked out.

  9. matt says:

    A lot of routers these days have incredibly easy methods for setting up wireless encryption…

  10. Eric Florack says:

    And what of taking MY money to pay for your healthcare?
    After all, isn’t internet access, like healthcare, a “right”?

    (snicker)

  11. An Interested Party says:

    “And what of taking MY money to pay for your healthcare?”

    Oh really? So you pay for every penny of health care provided to you and yours? You have insurance? Good to know that you make sure that not one dime more than what you pay in premiums, copays, etc. is spent on you and yours…

  12. B. Minich says:

    I don’t see what the columnist was doing as stealing: she was using an open door to the Internet. That’s on the owners of open access points: if they want to domthis, go ahead. But if said door closes, that doesn’t mean she’s entitled to free service. I lock my door for that reason. I’ve thought about giving free access. But the liability issues are too much for me to really consider that. And I’ve never mooched myself, because I want to know I have access, and that means paying for it.

    Basically, she needs to pay up now that she can’t mooch any longer. It’s just how the world works.

  13. Eric Florack says:

    AIP, I’m addressing principles, here.
    Is the topic confusing?

  14. Trumwill says:

    Not really, but the fact of the matter is that an unsecured network is free for anyone to use. It’s actually kind of the point. You can’t expect the network to detect which machine belongs to the guy who paid the bill without any input.

    If I leave my car out front with the keys in the ignition, that is not an invitation for someone to take a joyride even if they refill the gas tank when they return it. I agree that the neighbor’s behavior is unwise, but that doesn’t make it an invitation.

    We shouldn’t assume that the guy with the unsecured network is too dumb to set it up with a password. We should assume that he knows how, and chooses not to.

    Why should we make that assumption? A lot of people buy equipment that they don’t know how to use. The last one I bought, you just plug it in and it’s ready to use. You have to expressly go in and add the protection. Some people don’t know to do that.

    It’s also possible that he tried to set it up incorrectly, it prevented his computers from getting on, and so he said “to hell with it.” Perhaps that’s “choosing not to”, but it’s not an invitation.

    By and large, I don’t think it’s a problem to swipe someone else’s Internet under some circumstances. I did it periodically before I got the Internet on my phone when I was somewhere and needed to check on something real quick. I’ve also done it when I move somewhere and my Internet hasn’t been set up yet. But five years?

  15. Eric Florack says:

    Not really, but the fact of the matter is that an unsecured network is free for anyone to use. It’s actually kind of the point. You can’t expect the network to detect which machine belongs to the guy who paid the bill without any input.

    If I leave my car out front with the keys in the ignition, that is not an invitation for someone to take a joyride even if they refill the gas tank when they return it. I agree that the neighbor’s behavior is unwise, but that doesn’t make it an invitation.

    I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to both sides of this particular discussion. While I agree the woman is engaged in outright theft, it strikes me that the person maintaining the hot spot was responsible for the installation and maintenance of security on that hot spot. In the twenty some odd years that I spent supporting computers for a living, those kind of security issues were daily bread and butter for me. I suggest based on that experience that what we have here is someone who truly doesn’t understand the technology , or at least, can’t be bothered with the proper maintenance of it.

    That said, and as I attempted to point out to AIP, and there seems to me a larger moral issue here. So many seem quite willing to allow somebody else to pay the freight on (insert the commodity or expenditure, here ) without regards to the morality at issue.

  16. I don’t think this is just about one professor stealing internet – this is likely the opening salvo of a debate over spectrum allocation. It sounds dry, but basically the FCC wants to take broadcast spectrum away from broadcasters and allocate it for wireless internet, and this is a sneak preview of the sales pitch…

  17. the owners’ leaving their networks password-free was essentially a gift, an ethereal gesture of kindness

    If someone leaves their home unlocked, that is not an invitation to come in and hang out.

  18. Eric Florack says:

    I don’t think this is just about one professor stealing internet – this is likely the opening salvo of a debate over spectrum allocation. It sounds dry, but basically the FCC wants to take broadcast spectrum away from broadcasters and allocate it for wireless internet, and this is a sneak preview of the sales pitch…

    While I don’t doubt that that is how this activist commission will try to sell it, the fact of the matter is that the broadcasters are taking up a small , indeed minuscule, portion of our EM spectrum. The argument, therefore, that we are dealing with a commission concerned about limited spectrum is on its face absurd. What this ends up being is a means of control. Reallocate the spectrum, and talk radio ceases to exist, for example. Or at least, it gets driven to the Internet, which is far more easily controlled by government, as places like China and North Korea demonstrate.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    “Is the topic confusing?”

    Not at all…if you truly follow the principles that you claim, then you do not take a dime of anyone else’s money to pay for any health care delivered to you and yours…it’s quite simple, really…this, of course, could be extended to any of your fellow travelers around here as well…to all of you who bitch and moan about having to pay the freight for anyone else…

  20. Eric Florack says:

    Not at all…if you truly follow the principles that you claim, then you do not take a dime of anyone else’s money to pay for any health care delivered to you and yours…

    And on what basis do you assume I don’t pay my way, I wonder?

  21. An Interested Party says:

    I’m not assuming anything…but according to your own standards, if you have health insurance for you and yours (obviously I don’t know whether or not you do), then you only accept as much in services as you actually pay for…I guess that means no big operations for you or anyone in your family who is covered, unless, of course, you somehow justify it to yourself that you have already paid out as much in premiums…

  22. Eric Florack says:

    I’m not assuming anything…but according to your own standards, if you have health insurance for you and yours (obviously I don’t know whether or not you do), then you only accept as much in services as you actually pay for…I guess that means no big operations for you or anyone in your family who is covered, unless, of course, you somehow justify it to yourself that you have already paid out as much in premiums…

    But that, AIP is a contract I and the others freely involve ourselves in… as opposed to being forced to do so by government. Do you not see the moral differences there?

  23. An Interested Party says:

    Ohhhhh…so it’s ok to take other people’s money once a contract is signed…I understand…

  24. starkruzr says:

    My router allows me to stand up a separate SSID on its own VLAN that I can throttle down to a small fraction of my full bandwidth. So I do. It’s limited to 80kB/s down and 30kB/s up. If someone really needs it, they can use it. My WPA2 SSID that belongs to the rest of the house can “steal” bandwidth back if I have to have it.

    This is zero skin off my nose and I don’t mind doing it. Also, let us please not have even an ounce of sympathy for ISPs. We are royally ripped off by ISPs in the US because of a dearth of competition, and then they have the nerve to sing sad stories about how Net Neutrality will kill them. Please. They are raking in the dough brought to them by the free investment of tax dollars that brought us digital infrastructure.

  25. Herb says:

    “If I leave my car out front with the keys in the ignition, that is not an invitation for someone to take a joyride even if they refill the gas tank when they return it. ”

    Bad example. Of course if you left your keys in your car it’s not an invitation to drive it. But if you left a box of apples on your stoop with a sign that says “Free apples,” you couldn’t exactly get mad if someone stops by and takes one, right?

    An unsecured wi-fi signal is kind of like that box of apples. It literally broadcasts a signal that says “any machine can use me.” They even call it “advertising.”

    “Why should we make that assumption? A lot of people buy equipment that they don’t know how to use. ”

    Because we should assume that people know how to use their stuff. If someone buys a table saw, we expect them to read the instructions, right? Why should it be any different with a wireless router?

    If you don’t want to put that “free apples” sign up, take it down.

  26. Eric Florack says:

    Ohhhhh…so it’s ok to take other people’s money once a contract is signed…I understand…

    No, rather once they make the choice, as opposed to having the choice made for them. Do you understand there’s a bit of difference there?

  27. @Herb

    If you don’t want to put that “free apples” sign up, take it down.

    Terrible analogy. What you’re implying is that by not securing their WiFi, these people are actually taking the time to put up a sign that says “Free WiFi”, or “Free Apples” to use your terminology. That’s not the case. It would be the same as not taking the keys out of my car. It’s the LACK of effort that makes me vulnerable in this case, but that doesn’t make it any less acceptable to exploit me.

  28. Trumwill says:

    @Herb, what Christopher said. The guy didn’t put his SSID as “Freewifi”. He left it with the default name “Linksys.” This was someone far, far more likely to be techdumb or lazy than generous.

    The notion that people necessarily know how to use the stuff that they buy is flawed. Deeply, deeply flawed. Anyone that has ever provided technical support (even to family) can usually give you countless examples. The way most routers work is that you plug it in and it works… with absolutely no security. It’s the default setting. The neighbor didn’t have to actively do anything, much less put up a sign.

  29. Herb says:

    “What you’re implying is that by not securing their WiFi, these people are actually taking the time to put up a sign that says “Free WiFi”, or “Free Apples” to use your terminology.”

    Yes, when they are plugging in their unsecured wireless router, they are “taking the time” to put up a “free wifi” sign. It doesn’t take much time, granted, but “time” isn’t the operative factor here. Authorization is.

    An open, unsecured wifi signal literally authorizes any machine within range to use it.

    “The notion that people necessarily know how to use the stuff that they buy is flawed. ”

    I don’t know about that… It’s a pretty reasonable expectation, I’d say. If one can install a wifi network, one should also be able to encrypt it without too much fuss. Even if it takes a call to tech support.

    Why should we assume the open wifi signal was provided negligently?

  30. Well, why should we assume the open wifi signal was provided with the intention to be used so openly? We’re going in circles here.

    I would have to make the assumption, Herb, that you have never provided technical support at any level (as a network engineer by trade, I obviously have). You are seriously overestimating the technical proficiency of the average end-user, who would be all but blinkered if installing WiFi wasn’t such an easy process as companies have made it today. Even with as easy as it is – just to get off the ground – I still get asked to help out routinely by family and friends-of-friends.

    People need to secure their wireless to avoid a potential liability issue from people downloading illegal materials on their connection, as I’ve stated. But just having that open wireless account doesn’t give free moral reign to other people to just wardrive the connection. The fact that anyone can try to justify this baffles me.

  31. Trumwill says:

    I don’t know about that… It’s a pretty reasonable expectation, I’d say.

    An expectation that they should, but you’re assuming that they do.

    Why should we assume the open wifi signal was provided negligently?

    Because the guy didn’t even name is router! That’s even easier to do than adding protection. It’s pretty apparent that the guy just plugged it in and that was that.

  32. Scott P says:

    I paid half my roomate’s internet bill to let me connect to his router. It was mutually beneficial. Her method was pure and simple mooching. Her mental gymnastics to justify this mooching makes me facepalm.

    If the neighbor had monitored her connections to their router, and confronted her about it, I wonder what she would say to him. Would her face turn red at all?

  33. Scott P says:

    “Not really, but the fact of the matter is that an unsecured network is free for anyone to use.”

    That’s a really big assumption. I keep my front door unlocked for my convenience; that doesn’t mean anyone may enter. Instead of assuming, why not just recognize the fact that it doesn’t belong to you, and you must get permission first? She knows her neighbor paid for the internet that she is leeching off of. Without permission, her leeching is pure theft. By this logic, because I don’t have a fence around my quarter acre of yard, people may use my yard as they please.

    “But if you left a box of apples on your stoop with a sign that says “Free apples,” you couldn’t exactly get mad if someone stops by and takes one, right?”

    The problem with that is that an unsecured router does not equal a “free apples” sign. If the router was named something like “free net”, then you’d have a point. Otherwise, it’s just a box of apples that don’t belong to you.

  34. This is zero skin off my nose and I don’t mind doing it.

    Better hope no one ever uses it to download something illegal.

  35. anjin-san says:

    & # 9833;