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By: MarkJ - 17 August, 2009 (12:01 AM)
SCRIPTed, an online law journal, has published a new study that calls for the laws governing shared wireless ( Wi-Fi ) broadband use and access to be clarified. The report - Law in the Last Mile: Sharing Internet Access Through WiFi, makes the case that broadband uptake and coverage could be improved if consumers were given more freedom to share their connections.
The study, which is authored by Daithi Mac Sithigh, a lecturer on Internet law at the University of East Anglia (UEA), touches on a difficult subject that most people probably aren't fully aware of but that could have serious consequences. Most of us share Wi-Fi around the home, yet choosing to share this same access with your neighbours could break the law.

The reasons for this are deeply complex and mix both inhibitive ISP restrictions with the very real threat of unwanted criminal access to your broadband connection, often through an unsecured (open) wireless access point. But defining the difference between what is and is not a criminal act turns out to be a lot more complicated.

Sophos, a computer security company, once said:

"Stealing Wi-Fi internet access may feel like a victimless crime, but it deprives ISPs of revenue. Furthermore, if you've hopped onto your next door neighbors' wireless broadband connection to illegally download movies and music from the net, chances are that you are also slowing down their Internet access and impacting on their download limit."

Indeed many UK ISPs include clauses in their Terms and Conditions (T&C's) that prevent connections from being shared beyond your home. This is perhaps understandable because your neighbours would thus become one less potential customer for the ISP; not to mention the above quoted reasons. However the study argues that this gives the provider far too much power.

UK ISP Karoo currently requires its customers to agree that:

"[Karoo] shall be entitled to terminate the Service immediately if We discover that . . . you have permitted (whether knowingly or not) a third party (or third parties) to access the Service using a wireless connection over Your Communications Line."

There are of course some notable exceptions, such as the BT FON service, which allows the operators broadband connection to be shared out wirelessly because it also helps improve their Wi-Fi (BT Openzone) service coverage and thus generate more revenue. However this is a minority stance and most ISPs are more protectionist.

The criminal side - jumping on an open wireless network and using or abusing it without permission - is obviously much clearer cut when spoken out aloud, yet far harder to balance in legal terms. The result is a set of legal protections that make sharing wireless with friends or neighbours very difficult to do without breaking the law.

The situation is further complicated by new devices that are often setup to automatically connect to any "available network within range", which could cause owners to be breaking the law without ever having even realised.

Daithi Mac Sithigh concludes:

"It is suggested that the thread connecting domestic WAPs [Wireless Access Point], municipal wifi and spectrum reform is a desire to enable the use of the Internet by individuals, rather than the management of a network in the interests of [ISPs]. Some of the legal provisions criticised ... are more appropriate to large, discrete networks rather than the flexible, atomised wireless commons.

Consider instead, however, a situation where the law protected the ability of the WAP admin to share and the external user to connect ... that providing access to the Internet with the maximum possible freedom of action and of use reserved to the user was itself important. In the context of rules on state aid which might hamper municipal wifi, this is clearly important.

Inappropriate legal constraints on or actions against WAP admins, wifi users or public authorities acting in the best traditions of the local library or park (if one may be permitted to use a metaphor!) are a clear and present threat to this model."

The report certainly makes many valid points but we suspect that it will prove far harder to implement, especially with many ISPs likely to oppose the idea (e.g. they have enough problems clamping down on illegal file sharing and this probably wouldn't help that [makes identifying those responsible far harder]).

Many of the arguments put forward also relate to unsecure (open) wireless links and at least some of the problems, such as criminal threats, could be circumvented by making sure that Wi-Fi links use secure (encrypted) connections. Most consumers already do this but some clearly do not; perhaps new Wi-Fi equipped devices should come with encryption enabled by default. What do our readers think, should we be allowed to share more Wi-Fi or are current laws still necessary?
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