Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bad Connection

There's a scene in the film "Jesus of Montreal" where the Christ-like actor is being tempted by his smooth-talking satanical lawyer high-up in an office block overlooking the big city. It's an unsubtle, but exquisitely achieved re-telling of the temptation of Christ atop the pinnacle from the Gospels, and a million times better than Mel Gibson's effort.

I have a lesser story of temptation in high-places to tell. A friend of mine (let's call him Stan) was working high up in a tower block in a major UK city. He had no access to his client's network and absolutely needed to check his email.

He looked at the large list of wi-fi networks accessible to his laptop and noted that a few of them had the default names for the market-leader suppliers of wireless routers and absolutely no security. He experimented and found that he could access his email through two of them. Free, gratis and for nothing.

Stan knows that this behaviour is actually illegal - 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".

To protect Stan, I won't reveal whether he did actually cave in to this temptation in the office. Personally, I don't see what harm he would have been doing (if he did). For all he knew, the routers could have been left open on purpose as a charitable gesture so that unconnected people could have internet access. It's an unlikely reason, but I'm struggling to think of any sensible reason for someone in this day and age leaving a wi-fi router open if they didn't want all and sundry connecting.

I had a chat with Stanetta about this over a Starbucks coffee this morning. She agrees that it's a complicated issue but seemed to be saying that taking anything without permission is wrong, even if the something is unwanted "leftovers". She was especially sure of this when I mentioned it was against a law and people had been arrested for it.

Put that way, I find it hard to justify this kind of behaviour, but then I do sometimes let my speed creep over the speed limit, sometimes park where I shouldn't, have been known to download the odd bit of free music and have photocopied books without permission. Does this make me a bad person ?


Flitcraft said...

So are these schoolchildren thieving light? If a neighbour's sprinkler is sending water over the fence in a hot day would you be wrong to cool down by it? Indeed would he be right to send the police round to dig up your plants because they were profiting from it!

If someone doesn't set a password on their wifi nowadays then they are like the sprinkler owner who sets his sprinkler in such a way that it overshoots and catches the neighbouring garden, they can hardly complain that the people next door make use of it (quick get the pot plants under that!), and it doesn't cost them an extra penny. Indeed by leaving the sprinkler where it catches their poorer neighbours' flower bed too, or where kids can play under it on a hot day they may be deliberately doing the neighbourhood a favour.

Ethically it's hard to see how standing under their excess sprinkler to cool down could be wrong. Now where things change are if a bad individual uses an 'excess service' to do things which harm the person who left the network open - downloading child porn, downloading huge files which make their service provider up their charges. If you don't do that then whatever the law says, ethically you are doing nothing wrong because you are not harming anyone. Nor are you trespassing as they have set the system so that it 'goes over the fence'.

It's not as if it's difficult for those who don't like sharing to shut off the tap by passwording their network. I think the law's a bit of a blunt instrument in this case

Stan said...

I have looked at this line of argument before and to me it translates as "If someone's stupid enough to leave their door open, it's OK to steal stuff you want - as long as you don't think it has any value to them."

Taking anything without permission is stealing, and the quantity or value is very much by-the-by.

I'd agree though that this should fall under the category of "unethical" rather than "illegal" though. Similar to not always letting buses pull out into traffic and speaking ill of the dead.

Flitcraft said...

I think you're missing my point about spill-over. If they leave their physical front door open and you enter, you are clearly trespassing. If you set something up that broadcasts over your fence and invades other people's space, then you are spilling stuff over into the public domain. Think light, water, playing a radio in the garden - if you play a radio or an instrument loudly enough to be heard in the street would you think it was unethical to listen? What exactly is unethical unless the recipient of the spill-over uses it in some way to harm you or cost you money eg. by standing in the street bootlegging a recording of you singing in the shower with the window open and selling it as a comedy MP3?

The wood in a bonfire belongs to me but if the energy it radiates reaches a tramp standing on the public right of way outside my garden then they don't need my permission to stand there and they can hardly be said to be stealing heat radiation. I may pay the bill for electricity for a garden lamp but if the tramp in the street uses it to read a newspaper must he have my permission or else he's a photon stealer? Have you ever seen someone loudly playing a stereo at a party with their windows open rush out into the street, yelling 'stop soundwave thieves! You dont have my permission to listen! I paid for that stereo!"

I'd argue that if all you do is download a few emails, you're like the tramp reading the newspaper by the garden lamp. Sometimes things we pay for indirectly benefit others, as they spill over from our 'property'. Only if people start to use them to do harm or abuse them does it become unethical.

Meanwhile I'm currently thieving photons from the windows across the road, sound energy from the car stereo going past my window and heating from the flats around which have turned their heating on before I do. No flat is an island.