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Monday, September 8, 2008

Is stealing wireless wrong?

A man has been arrested after being spotted allegedly sitting in a street with a laptop using someone else's unsecured wireless connection. Is it immoral to do this?

So here's the thing.

You're walking down the street in Hypotheticalville and in front of you is a gentleman who, when he walks, spills seemingly endless torrents of golden coins on to the pavement behind him.

He seems unconcerned by this and you notice that if not picked up, these magic coins quickly evaporate. Is it moral for you to pick a few up?

It's the kind of tree-falls-in-the-forest whimsy that an undergraduate philosopher might mull over for a moment, but back in the real world a not entirely dissimilar debate is being played out.

The man arrested in a street in west London is at least the third person to be accused of breaching the law by taking internet service without permission.

The Communications Act 2003 says a "person who (a) dishonestly obtains an electronic communications service, and (b) does so with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service, is guilty of an offence".

There are also suggestions using somebody else's wireless could come under the Computer Misuse Act, usually used to combat hacking and electronic fraud.

But if it can be interpreted as illegal, can it be truly said to be immoral?

Heavy downloading might affect the unsecured person's speed of access or download limit, but a use like checking an e-mail is hardly likely to be noticed. Most "victims" will suffer no loss.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, says with technology moving rapidly, socially-accepted moral positions can be slow to solidify.

"I haven't thought about it. I'm not sure anybody has. It might be one of those areas where cultural norms haven't evolved or stabilised yet. It's so new it's not clear whether it's stealing or not. And sometimes the law trails public norms.

"If you steal a silver Mont Blanc pen it's theft but if it's an ordinary ballpoint pen or a pencil it is assumed you can take it.

"In the olden days people had norms about whether you were able to pick apples from someone else's tree. Perhaps it's OK if the branches hang over the road, but not from inside their garden. You have generally shared expectations."

In 2002 Matt Jones, the original designer of the BBC News website, devised "warchalking" with a group of friends. These chalk symbols on walls and pavements showed those in the know where free wireless internet was.

Chicago citation : Finlo Rohrer. Is stealing wireless wrong?. BBC News. ( accessed September 9, 2008)

Summary: This thing is called war driving. Stealing a wireless connection from someone else. It is a bad activity because the owner of the wireless could not get full usage of what he pay.

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