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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Freeloading in cyberspace: the ethics of WiFI

    Lori Foleycolumnist
    Lori Foley

    Two or three years ago, I remember reading about a new movement to “”democratize”” wireless Internet service. Apparently, what the adherents of the movement meant by “”democratize”” was “”make available free of charge to anyone who wants it.”” They advocated drawing an infinity symbol in chalk on sidewalks and buildings in areas with unprotected Wireless access points, so that anyone wandering around who saw the symbol and knew what it meant could pull out his laptop and hop on the Net.

    I’m guessing that the movement never really caught on, as I’ve never seen a chalked infinity symbol anywhere, and free wireless access is now as ubiquitous as the coffee shops that offer it, lessening the need for secret codes outside of buildings with unsecured networks.

    But, I’m guessing publicity isn’t the biggest problem for the free-Internet-for-everyone movement; a much bigger impediment is the fact that using someone else’s Internet – or “”piggybacking,”” as it’s rather quaintly called – is a moral gray area that many are starting to question.

    Exhibit A: David M. Kauchak, 32, of Winnebago County, Ill., was sentenced to a year of probation and a $250 fine this January. His crime? He was discovered by a police officer piggybacking on someone else’s wireless Internet signal. Kauchak’s story spread like wildfire through the Internet, prompting impassioned message board posts and hyperbolic comparisons of the Illinois police force to oppressive totalitarian regimes.

    With Kauchak in mind, I set out to interview friends and strangers to determine the pulse of the UA community on the ethics of using someone else’s wireless Internet. My admittedly unscientific poll showed that the only people not occasionally piggybacking on someone else’s wireless signal were those who don’t have wireless access on their computers at all.

    However, it was rare that people felt totally sure it was OK. When I asked, “”Do you see any problem with using a service that someone else is paying for without his permission?”” the answer was rarely an emphatic no, and much more frequently an unsure-sounding “”not really.””

    It’s hard to argue that occasionally hopping on an open network for a quick e-mail check is a major moral wrong with serious impact on the individual whose Internet service gets used. After all, many would argue, people who don’t take the time to secure their networks are practically announcing that it’s not a big problem for others to use their service.

    But as these new technologies become more and more commonplace, it’s up to us (and, apparently, the Illinois police force) to establish standards. Everyone seems to agree that what isn’t OK is chronic freeloading – that is, not paying for Internet service because there’s an unprotected signal available close to home.

    In the interest of journalistic integrity as well as a desire to avoid outright hypocrisy, I need to admit at this point that I have been guilty in the past of this type of freeloading. But I’ve been convinced of my wrongs and have reformed. Not paying for something just because someone else already does is unfair and frankly cheap.

    If you’re not willing to pay for Internet service at home, the good news is that soon there will be another out from this moral morass. According to Michele Norin at the Center for Information and Computing Technology, the UA is making its way out of the computing dark ages; the department hopes to make wireless access available throughout major swaths of campus starting in the fall, using funding from a new fee passed at the most recent Arizona Board of Regents meeting. Though there’s no official timetable for the implementation of wireless service throughout campus, the department plans on starting with heavily trafficked areas like the library and the Student Union Memorial Center and enhancing the service already available on the UA Mall.

    So stop taking your neighbor’s signal, or go offer to pay for some of the monthly cost. My prediction is that using other people’s wireless service is going to take the place of illegally downloading music as the Internet peccadillo that almost everyone has committed at some point, but it will decrease as we mature along with the Internet. Let’s grow up and pay for what we take.

    Lori Foley is a senior majoring in international studies and English. She can be reached at

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