So Weirdly Wrong

A few minutes ago, a police officer passed the bench where I was sitting outside the [edit: Nantucket] Athenaeum, enjoying the mild temperature and the wifi signal, and he said, “Sir, you can’t use the Internet outside the library.”

I said, “What?” (I’m pretty clever under pressure.)

The officer in question (whose conduct was entirely professional, firm, and calm behind those mirrored shades) solemnly assured me that in order to use the library’s open wireless signal, I had to be seated within the library. The officer then wandered on back to the nearby police station.

I dutifully, if reluctantly, turned off the power to my Airport card and, since I had only been on the bench a few minutes, began working — offline — on what turns out to be this post. I had noticed two other weak but open signals in the area, and I figured that I could post this perplexing moment via one of the other open signals, then scuttle back to the studio. As I was writing, the officer returned and — as the officer walked straight for me — I held up my TiBook, pointing to the zero lines in the Airport icon, and showed the officer that my card was off.

“Why don’t you just close that up, sir, or use your computer elsewhere?’

I closed the computer in order not to constitute a threat to established order, but engaged this peace officer in a discussion of the complexities of the topic. “I did notice several other open signals in the area — am I allowed to connect to them?”

“Maybe if you had permission it would be all right, but it’s a new law, sir; ‘theft of signal.’ It would be like if you stole someone’s cable TV connection.”

I responded, “But this is a radio signal thing — it’s not like a cable connection, it’s like someone has a porch light on and I’m sitting on the bench, reading a book by their light. I’m not stealing their light.”

“It’s a law, sir; if someone comes along and downloads child photography (that wasn’t the exact word the officer used) and it goes through their [sc., the access point owner’s] connection, that’s a violation and we’ve had cases of that. That’s a felony.”

(I skip the question of whether it’s less a problem if someone downloads such photos while sitting in the library. Since I’ve already been categorized, however politely, with felons, I thought discretion should prevail at this point.) “Is this a state law?” I asked.

“It’s a federal law, sir; a Secret Service agent came and explained it to us.”

“Look, I don’t want to give you a hard time, and I’m very thankful that you alerted me to this, and I’ve done what you asked, but I’d be very surprised if there turned out to be a federal law forbidding my using an open wireless signal in a public place.”

“Well, you can look it up, sir, and explain it to the chief. . . .”

At this point, it became clear that my uniformed interlocutor had to head in a different direction from me, so we shook hands and parted. And I walked back to the studio, dumbfounded that someone just rousted me for picking an open wireless signal in public — indeed (as it turns out) for using a laptop within a wireless signal’s range of the library. Weird.

posted from a secure hiding place near an open access point. . . .

[Rest of story: here, here, here, here, and if you haven’t seen Gary Turner’s coverage go here too.]

1 thought on “So Weirdly Wrong

  1. You might want to go back into the Athenaeum and ask a librarian about this. I smell a cop-library feud somewhere.

    Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 22, 2004 05:06 PM
    I agree. This one makes no sense. It’s the same as taking photographs of public buildings when you’re on public land — there is no law against it, but tell that to security.

    I would take this to city hall. You’ve been harrassed on public land.

    Posted by: Shelley at August 22, 2004 06:14 PM
    Whoa, remind me to keep my computer off outside. Read this article –

    Posted by: Shelley at August 22, 2004 06:19 PM
    EFF has a whole section on this, called Best Practices for Online Service Providers. Basically, as a service provider (if you ran a wireless point open to all, or the library in this case) you are not responsible for what takes place on the network. If someone really is trafficing some illegal stuff, the person doing it is at fault, not the person providing the connection.

    Posted by: Matt at August 22, 2004 06:49 PM
    You should try this again sometime, and tell the officer that you would like him to cite you or arrest you if this is infact illegal. Continue sitting on a bench and modifying the radio rave vibrations. If you are actually arrested or fined for this, it will become far more interesting. Good luck.

    Posted by: Finite at August 22, 2004 07:45 PM
    s/rave/wave/ # typo

    Posted by: Finite at August 22, 2004 07:48 PM
    while getting arrested over a nonexistent law might be interesting, i doubt it would do anything to change the law. plus it can be hard to defend yourself against laws that don’t exist, unless you happen to know a good nonexistent lawyer. it would probably be better (and also interesting) to lobby your representatives to change this nonexistent law.

    Posted by: scott reynen at August 22, 2004 07:58 PM
    I once tried to take a picture of a federal courthouse on a weekend (the purpose was to use on our firm’s website). I was approached by a building security cop who told me I was not allowed to take pictures of the court. I asked him why. He said it was against the law. And I informed him that I was a lawyer and I had worked in that very building and was aware of all of the laws that might pertain to picture taking of public buildings and he was, unfortunately, misinformed.

    I told him that I didn’t want to put him an awkward position so I would stop taking pictures, but I told him that he might want to brush up on the law. Obviously, people are allowed to take pictures of public buildings while standing on a public street. What’s amazing is that something that most people would instinctively understand as a fundamental right, a policeman can be trained to prohibit with minimal effort. I think there’s a lesson here.

    Posted by: Ernie at August 22, 2004 09:17 PM
    The next time my girlfriend gives me crap about being a nerd and using my computer on a park bench… I’ll be all like:

    “No baby! I’m stealing signal! I’m a rebel! I’m a criminal! I’m fightin’ the man! Now kiss me damn it!!! ”


    Girls always like the dangerous ones! Now I’m cool all of a sudden. All I need is a Harley !!


    Posted by: Kevin Burton at August 22, 2004 09:29 PM
    Nonsensical, nonexistent, or just plain weird and annoying, such a law might actually come to be. Or at the very least, the precedent for such a law has already been set in a similar situation. As my father, an amateur “ham” radio operator and all-around radio enthusiast, informed me the Federal government passed a similar communications law in the mid 80s (the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986), but with respect to cell phones and (improperly named) “police” scanners. From what I understand, the law aims to prohibit the general scanner-owning public, as well as the federal government, from listening to cell phones and similar devices, which are basically just 2-way FM radios. (My father also tells me, turning apoplectic purple in the process, that at the time the law was passed only very expensive, high-end scanners had the range to hear cell phones. As they came down in price, however, the general public still could not own such a device–unless they could prove they were part of a federal agency.) Actually the Communications Act of 1934, I’ve also learned, already “allows” the public to listen to any radio transmission they can, but prohibits listeners from revealing the content of transmissions to uninvolved parties or from using the content to aid in illegal activities or for personal gain. So, no blogging about something you saw on the net while using wifi and no ebay via wifi? Granted, the more recent law aims to protect commerical interests and the right to privacy–issues not raised by AKMA’s situation (except his _own_ right to privacy)–it does so by attempting to police the reception of open wireless signals. So both weird and scary I’d say.

    Posted by: Eric Thurman at August 22, 2004 09:41 PM
    well, sucking up someone’s 802.11 bandwidth is a bit different than reading by their porchlight.

    And the illegal d/l issue does make criminalizing this use somewhat sensible, and it looks like:

    1030 (a)(2)(C) is the gotcha! clause if the computer/router you’re accessing communicates across state lines.

    (though it must be said getting hassled for using a library’s publically-available signal outside the library is extremely sketchy — this isn’t Red China fer gosh sakes)
    Posted by: Troy Dawson at August 22, 2004 09:43 PM
    Police officers are remarkably willing to use urban legend to enforce laws. If it’s a federal law, and that police officer is not a federally deputized agent, then he is not obliged or, in fact, able to enforce that law. He could perform some kind of arrest and then alert the FBI, but local officers don’t act as executive arms on federal law. They alert federal authorities to violations of laws.

    A neighbor was burgled a few years ago and the thief took her pulled wisdom teeth, which she’d forgotten were stashed in a small manila envelope. She only knew he’d taken them (and some panties and other stuff) because he’d torn the envelope open, which was labeled. The responding officer told me very seriously that the teeth were used in satanic rituals, which he’d been reading about in a book.

    Yikes. Police officer need to be able to provide the precise law under which they are interceding. If they can’t, their only recourse is to arrest you, and then to (often) face the consequences if you’re middle or upper-class enough to pursue a complaint and civil litigation. The city then settles or apologizes, the officer might lose some pay or be fired.

    Basically, I don’t believe that anyone should be arrested without a specific charge, and I’m sure the officer in your case, AKMA, would have said you were disturbing the peace and resisting an officer’s instructions, or some such.

    Posted by: Glenn Fleishman at August 22, 2004 10:01 PM
    Gee, that was how I emailed family and updated my blog the whole time I was in Mississippi last fall.

    Bet you had no idea you had a hardened criminal working for you…

    Posted by: Jane Ellen at August 22, 2004 10:39 PM
    Like duh guys, guess where this cop gets his free coffee. Starbucks, right?

    Posted by: Jerry at August 22, 2004 11:08 PM
    Illinois’ Super-DMCA passed last year, and includes the following wording:

    “Unlawful communication device” means any … communication device that is capable of acquiring or facilitating the acquisition of a communication service without the express consent or express authorization of the communication service provider

    Is it possible that the police officer was refering to a similar law recently passed in your state? (url goes to EFF’s super-DMCA page)

    Posted by: David Newcum at August 22, 2004 11:38 PM
    It wouldn’t be good to push your luck on this. Even though the cop is wrong, he’ll confiscate your computer when he arrests you. Then they will look over the contents of the hardrive to find something else to charge you with once they realize they have egg on their face from their mistake. Being innocent is not enough to make you safe. Anyone who has been on the internet at all has clicked on links that the cops could call suspicious and cause them to look into your ISPs logs and try to trump up charges. Plus, you probably won’t get your computer back in one piece.

    Posted by: Don’t Risk It at August 22, 2004 11:44 PM
    This is totally ridiculous. Shouldn’t you at least report this to the local precinct? Perhaps the library as well. I would be angry.

    Posted by: Todd Troxell at August 22, 2004 11:59 PM
    What’s amazing is all the folks saying that you should just bend over and take this because the even though the law is on your side, the “man” could make things difficult for you. I had no idea that our society had become so chickensh*t. Amazing. Absolutely amazing. I see why Shrub & Co. are getting away with their rape of the country.

    Posted by: mixalis at August 23, 2004 12:37 AM
    Surprise! The USA is a police state. Get over it.

    That sounds like a troll from an abrasive anti-American European. And to some extent you’d be right. But really people, wake up and look around you. Spot the armed policeman in the corner of McDonalds. Read the stories about people being hassled for no reason beyond “you ain’t from around these parts, are you boy”. Read the stories about the bad craziness of trying to fly on domestic airline flights. Even if you’re a Senator. Read the stories about the caged designated protest area in Boston. And so on. And on. And on.

    Land of the free? Pah! Free, yes, just as long as you stay between the white lines. And we’re not going to tell you where the white lines are. And for 1/3 of the population there is no space between the white lines; You’re guilty if we feel like arresting you.

    Posted by: Julian Bond at August 23, 2004 02:39 AM
    Taken another tack. Let’s say that the library provides free wifi. What T&Cs do the library have for this service and *where are they*. Do they specifically state that access is only to be used within the walls of the building and do they make it reasonably easy to find this statement and to accept it? Was there a captive portal page with a link to the terms? Or more likely is there a bit of paper on a pinboard covered by other bits of paper announcing free wifi.

    Perhaps the best response would have been to invite the policeman to walk with you into the library and find the piece of paper or person that could confirm that they specifically ban the use of the Library wifi outside the walls of the building. Given that library people are generally quite in favour of sharing and free access, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone who would tell him it was OK.

    Posted by: Julian Bond at August 23, 2004 02:52 AM
    It would be helpful to know what law specifically he was advised about by the FBI. Freedom of Information Act requests (to the local precinct and Secret Service) for notes from the mtg might lend some insight into how the officer acquired this belief. Surely the ACLU or EFF would be willing to send it out on your behalf. Both organizations should have some interest in a law supposedly claiming such a broad restriction on electronic communication.

    Posted by: Joni at August 23, 2004 03:33 AM
    Lesson learned – the higher the church the easier to intimidate.

    Posted by: Blowtroch at August 23, 2004 07:28 AM
    In China, many children know well about the story of Afanti, who was a legend hero that helps poors. He ever hoaxed one richman who wantd to charge a poor sitting outside his restaurant to smell. Afanti shaked his money bag to the richman, “Did you hear the sound of coins?”, “Yes”, “Then paid”, haha.

    Posted by: Isaac Mao at August 23, 2004 07:47 AM
    I’m the computer go-to guy at my library. We’re currently in the midst of a renovation and have a temporary branch on federal property. If you want to come sit outside and use our bandwith…go for it. It is my belief you’re already paying for it.

    *: Note: the above comment may or may not be the official policy of my or any other library and/or federal facility. But it should be…don’t you think?

    Posted by: CGW at August 23, 2004 08:11 AM
    Sounds as though the cop’s read a few too many of those WiFi-scare stories. By the way they’re written, one would be led to believe that all Wi-Fi users are up to no good.

    Maybe you could tell the cop that your boss could smite his boss.

    Posted by: Joey deVilla at August 23, 2004 08:48 AM
    > “Is this a state law?” I asked.
    > “It’s a federal law, sir; a Secret Service agent > came and explained it to us.

    This would be likely the Patriot Act then? As far as I know, that’s the only US law currently on the books under which people can be picked up and taken away without specifically being charged with anything. Although perhaps there are laws that the citizenry can’t be told about, now.

    You can’t be too secure, you know. Just try it.

    Posted by: hank at August 23, 2004 09:51 AM
    I know of several public libraries in Iowa that welcome people to use the wireless connection from outside the building. One in Ankeny, Iowa has stated openly to several people that if the library is closed you are welcome to use the wireless connection. They have also stated that even if the library is open please feel free to use the connection from your car if you so desire. There are also at least 2 rest area’s in the state of Iowa that have wifi service available for free (these are on I-80 between Des Moines and the Illinois border and have signs stating Wi-Fi access). It sounds like this officer was being a bit zealous with his approach. It appears that I could be told to stop using my wireless connection from outside my home if he were to see me doing so.

    I would definitely speack with the library staff ( director if possible ) and, if they are not opposed to allowing access while outside the building, request they inform the police department that this is a perfectly acceptable use of Publicly funded resources ( which all taxpayers finance ).

    Posted by: Mustang at August 23, 2004 09:54 AM
    A different but related issue: we need to go to libraries to help provide them with signal boosters so that we CAN use them outside of the library… help them become a wISP to serve the whole town!

    Even with a nifty built-in iBook antenna, I had trouble acquiring signal outside the Little Compton, RI public library. What with budget cuts reducing open hours, this is more important than ever. Darn those old buildings with lots of real metal nails and other signal-attenuating structural features, as well as cheap low-signal-strength base stations.

    Posted by: Raines at August 23, 2004 12:41 PM
    From the perspective of the cop, he’s been told something, interpreted it (as people do) and may have interpreted it from the view of someone not as comfortable with computers as someone who’s a blogger might be. So I’ll *presume* non-evil intent.

    [Just as with doctors there are people who are sick and people not yet sick: from a cop POV (not terribly realistic given the range of humans that are cops), there are criminals and people not yet criminals. His job is to catch criminals and discourage want to be criminal behavior.)

    Now, what YOU can do is not to bug HIM about the law – once he’s on the defensive and seeing himself as attacked, resistance will build. You can get some information (EFF jumps to mind, but also the view of the librarians – most are smart and very interested in this kind of topic) and approach his “management”. That might be chief of police, taht might be the city government. It might also include HIM.

    “Hey, I was concerned and I went and got this information and I’m wondering who we can talk to to clear up the misinformation you guys were given.”

    You’re not challenging the OFFICER, you’re challenging that they got bad information and you have something in your hand (not just theory) that proves it different. Give him a chance to be on your side and be your ally in this. “We both got screwed, lets fix this before a mistake is made.”

    Posted by: chuck at August 23, 2004 01:16 PM
    …um, correct me if I’m missing something, but if you have a library card issued by that library, then you already have permission to use their resources.

    Posted by: jt at August 23, 2004 01:27 PM
    You can’t be arrested unless they have a specific violation to nab you with. You have to be charged to be arrested. (On any police report, the police is required to note a code violation and this can be challenged in a court of law.) If any police officer claims that you’re in violation of the law, you have the right to demand clarification. There’s also a little something called Miranda rights.

    Plus, you get due process under the Fifth Amendment. The Sixth Amendment gives you the right “to be informed of the nature and cause of accusation.” The Fourteenth Amendment: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States.”

    Stop caving into their fear, people. Citizens hold more cards than they realize. And it disgusts me that backbone is so undervalued.

    Posted by: Ed at August 23, 2004 01:49 PM
    There’s an abbreviation for that incident, AKMA.

    GEST – of the Library +
    A – Akma +
    PO – Policeman +

    Posted by: Stu Savory at August 23, 2004 02:31 PM
    “You have to be charged to be arrested.”

    legally, yes. realistcally, no. i know many people who’ve been arrested simply because a cop didn’t like their attitude/politics/skin colour, and then came up with a charge later (the most common being assault officer, resist arrest, breach of peace, etc… or sometimes the cop gets lucky and finds he can get them on possession).

    Posted by: inkheart at August 23, 2004 10:35 PM
    An easy, relatively non-confrontational way to handle it:

    Ask the officer to tell you what the statute is that you are breaking. He’ll probably name some random law that he is making up or misinterpreting. Then, ask him for his business card. If he doesn’t have one, get his name and badge number. Now, politely go home or into the library & research the specified law. Better yet, politely ask the officer to wait while you call up the text of the law. If you are able to confirm that such a draconian law exists in your jurisdiction, politely thank the officer for bringing it to your attention. If not, however, print out the text of the law & have it ready for the next time you are harrassed.

    Even if such a law does exist, however, I think that they would have a very tough time convicting you in this particular case. You are using a publicly provided signal, and accessing it from a public place. This is even more clear cut then using a private but unprotected signal since the government is providing the signal for public use. If it were a coffee shop, they could argue that the signal was provided for customers only, but since it is a public entity offering a public service, I can’t imagine that you could be convicted. (As someone else pointed out, this does assume that the library doesn’t have a TOS posted that specifically forbids using the service from outside of the library.)

    One more course of action… Talk to the library manager. Most librarians would be highly offended by the situation. Ask them to give you writtten permission to use the library’s signal from outside the building. Next time the cop hassles you, you just whip out your permission slip & tell him to go away…

    Posted by: Mike at August 23, 2004 11:08 PM
    One more suggestion… Contact your local media! Let them know that the local police are harrassing citizens for doing noothing more then taking advantage of a public service. This course of action worked quite well for Ian Spiers, a Seattle photography student, who was repeatedly harrassed & threatened with arrest for taking pictures on public property. See Brown Equals Terrorist for details.

    Posted by: Mike at August 23, 2004 11:14 PM
    I think that the points about stealing bandwidth are good, but when the library (or a coffee shop) contracts with an internet service provider, they can work out an appropriate fee to cover the people using the wireless network, so there is proper compensation to the bandwidth provider. I think individuals, in their homes, should be required to close their access points simply because it is a lot like sharing cable to let other people use your access for free. But libraries and coffee shops who get wi-fi probably already pay a fee that would cover your hanging out on their steps and checking your email.

    Posted by: barlow at August 24, 2004 08:59 AM
    Messrs. Finite, Mixalis, & Ed are invited to visit Nantucket and exercise their rights.

    Posted by: John Morse at August 24, 2004 11:33 AM
    Barlow, why can’t the cable companies just charge for a certain amount of bandwidth and a certain amount for overages? That way bandwidth sharers would be paying their way, and there’d be no logic to place impediments on whatever sharing the customer wanted to engage in.

    This would also help deal with P2P bandwidth fiends as well, of course.

    Posted by: Jonathan Abbey at August 24, 2004 12:16 PM
    “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

    Dealing with stupid (or simply misinformed) people in positions of authority is, of course, the real problem.


    Posted by: Perry Clarke at August 24, 2004 01:40 PM
    Julian was being sarcastic with that “police state” comment, right?

    If they weren’t otherwise occupied with the tasks of daily survival, residents of actual police states would surely have cause to protest.

    Posted by: Eric Bjerke at August 24, 2004 03:11 PM
    Perry, where does that quote come from?

    How often do we do just that? Great Quote!

    Posted by: Eric Bjerke at August 24, 2004 03:25 PM
    As far as “stealing” someone’s signal, and utilizing it, it’s akin to someone watching a person undress and/or perform personal acts in their own house with the curtains and shades open. Law enforcement could possibly arrest the peeper on some local or state law of some kind if they were on private property, but might also trump up something if the person was just standing on the public right of way getting an extended eyeful, if they wanted. But they could also charge the resident with public indencency if indeed it was flagrant and not simple failure to remember the curtains weren’t closed. Such laws are open to very vague interpretations and the offense can be on either side, just as with WiFi.

    I agree it’s ludicrous to harass someone who is picking up a PUBLIC signal in a public place. How does the policeman know that’s it’s not a malicious hacker using a computer to defraud, however, or someone programming a bomb to go off in a nearby area? Life gets more difficult every day, and lines between liberty, personal and business privacy and safety too blurred, and there’s very little we can do about it.

    Reminds me of just a few decades ago when policemen arrested women who were breastfeeding their babies in public, no matter how modest they were. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Posted by: Bess W. Metcalf at August 24, 2004 04:07 PM
    A few years ago I tried to sell an old satellite reciever on Yahoo! Auctions and had my account banned for selling illegal items. when i called Y! they told me that I was selling a device for illegaly receiving satellite signals. I tried to explain that it was just an old reciever collecting dust in my closet, but they wouldn’t change their policy. Of course there was nothing to stop me from opening a new Y! account and still using it for the other services they provide.

    Anyway, just something that came to mind when I read this.
    Posted by: zed at August 24, 2004 07:56 PM
    How about this, ask the officer what the law is and while he is standing there either look it up online while sitting on the bench and him looking over your shoulder (unless that causes problems) or ask him to go INTO the library with you and then look it up – doing it in the vestibule may be pushing your luck 🙂


    Posted by: rob at August 24, 2004 08:00 PM
    I agree with Don’t Risk It about the nuisance value when the cops go through the hard disk to see if there was something mildly incriminating. A couple of thoughts:

    * Arrange for a large number of wireless users to surf the web while sitting outside the library, and alert the news media.

    * The feds probably briefed the cops that terrorists always steal bandwidth in this manner so that they can’t be traced. (One presumes that terrorists never go inside a hotspot to use the bandwidth, as in a Starbucks)

    Quite sad, really.

    Posted by: Ash at August 24, 2004 09:42 PM
    I’ve heard Perry’s quote termed “Hanlon’s Razor;” it’s most often attributed to a man named Robert Hanlon.

    Don’t ask me why I know this; I’m a magnet for useless trivia, or what my husband calls “little known facts of little interest to very few.” (^_^)

    Posted by: Jane Ellen at August 24, 2004 10:19 PM
    The porch light analogy is flawed: (1) You are using bandwidth, reducing the bandwidth available to others. (2) You are using bandwidth, increasing the overall bandwidth going through the node, incurring more costs on the ISP, resulting eventually in an increase in rates the WiFi owner will have to pay. (3) You are exposing the WiFi owner to potential hacker issues or dealing with issues like the kiddy porn example.

    Advocating that libraries and the like allow use of WiFi from whereever it can be picked up is fine. But asserting that you have the unlimited right to use something someone else is paying for is wrong.

    Posted by: Darcy at August 25, 2004 12:41 AM
    Darcy, all analogies are unfortunately flawed but I think your analysis overlooks relevant circumstances. As for (1) the bandwidth in question is specifically being provided for public consumption; (2) the “WiFi owner” in this case is the public library, whose intent is to provide the signal free of charge for public access; and (3) this issue is unaffected by whether a “perpetrator” is seated inside … or outside.

    No one is claiming an unlimited right to use something paid for by another, rather the right to use a publicly-funded resource consistent with the purpose for which it’s being provided. The library’s T & Cs most likely prohibit use of the system in a manner which would impair or threaten its availability to others (i.e. business use / excessive bandwidth consumption or to engage in illegal activities). If those terms are being observed, why it should matter on which side of a wall someone is seated?

    Posted by: Tom at August 25, 2004 08:17 AM
    Could you provide me with information about the law you are specifically speaking about? You see, I am thinking of hiring a lawyer to represent me on a case similar to this, but not exactly. I was sitting out here in the sun because it was so much more pleasant than the stuffy library. If you could give me a head start, I’d appreciate it. I’ll go back in the library now. Thank You.

    Posted by: Markle at August 25, 2004 08:43 AM
    If you do pursue this and find out the actual statute involved, please post your findings. Beyond the “this is a police state” concerns, it is interesting to see how rules, regs and laws developed for older technologies adjust to new ones; wifi is a curious one: Starbucks charges for theirs, so they don’t have the free-rider problem (at least in this area — in fact, some businesses proximate to a Starbucks use their wifi rather than their own firm’s net); if my neighbor gets cable and puts in a wireless hub and I can get the signal in my house, is it ok for me to piggy-back on this? No (or not without asking). The library is somewhere in-between, it seems to me.

    Your library, like some here, may have done this: they put in sufficient bandwidth (like my neighbor) to service the population that can fit in the building but not the population that can fill the park. If passers-by start planning their day around stopping in the park not-library-related web activity or ‘anonymous’ browsing using library bandwidth, but not at the library, inside patrons’ access is slowed. Maybe the library is just trying to apply direct-connection rules to wifi.

    The general problem of free-riders and wifi seems challenging: when wifi is put in as a “service” like downtown hotspots for everyone, it’s clear; and when it is a service that is charged for like Stabucks, it’s clear; but a public institution like a library trying to provide service on a limited budget to those who want to use it as a library service (vs use it as a free cyber-cafe) can try to allocate the service to ‘truer’ library patrons by trying to exclude everyone sucking up bandwidth from the neighborhood because they are treating the signal as their ISP.

    Financial Times today has an interesting article on the new economy and control issues for products and services once they are in the public domain — like an open signal.

    Intersting post — thanks.

    Posted by: C Bennett at August 25, 2004 06:10 PM
    Unauthorized use of wi-fi hotspots is referred to as “warchalking”, where people use chalk to indicate their existence.

    There is an interesting article on this that appeared in the 2003 UCLA Journal of Law and Technology: 2003 UCLA J.L. & Tech. Notes 19

    The Origin and Legality of Warchalking
    by Eric Vandevelde

    The author concludes that the practice does raise some legal issues but that they are unresolved at this point — both in terms of statutes and judicial decisions.

    Interesting that this gets raised in Nantucket, of all places — we can thank the presence of the Secret Service for that, which in turn comes from the fact that John Kerry and his wife have a house there.

    If the library is really concerned about this use of their network, I think there are some ways they could limit access to the network, via passcodes and the like.

    Posted by: jgl at August 26, 2004 10:12 AM
    Further to my earlier email, a May 3, 2004 article, “WiFi High Crimes” talks about the federal statute — the US federal computer crime statute (Title 18 U.S.C 1030) — that can be interpreted to make it a crime to knowingly access WiFi networks “without authorization”. However, as the author (a former head of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit) explains, “how was I supposed to know that I wasn’t allowed to access the WiFi connection”.

    His advice: “if we want to move to ubiquitous wireless computing, where you can use wiFi protocols for cheap, mobile VOIP communications, or have near universal wireless Internet access, we are going to have to persuade the law to get the hell out of the way.”

    The article is at

    Interestingly enough, I have a house on Nantucket and will be there next week. I may try to use a laptop outside the library and see if I the police say anything.

    Posted by: jgl at August 26, 2004 11:40 AM
    The FCC provides free WIFI wireless internet to the public at their headquarters, even outside at the courtyard ! So some branches of the government encourage you to use it. Story is linked below.,10801,83729,00.html

    Posted by: Larry at August 26, 2004 07:32 PM
    “I think your analysis overlooks relevant circumstances. As for (1) the bandwidth in question is specifically being provided for public consumption; (2) the “WiFi owner” in this case is the public library, whose intent is to provide the signal free of charge for public access; and (3) this issue is unaffected by whether a “perpetrator” is seated inside … or outside.”

    This is relevant if the public library’s rules do in fact permit use of WiFi whereever it can be received. If they don’t, then it’s not. So it boils down to the fact issue of what the library’s rules are. They certainly have the right to set limits on use of their resources, despite the fact that they are a “public” library. For instance, there are rules that reference books cannot be checked out, and rules that books that can be checked out must be returned in two weeks and cannot be written in.

    “No one is claiming an unlimited right to use something paid for by another, rather the right to use a publicly-funded resource consistent with the purpose for which it’s being provided. The library’s T & Cs most likely prohibit use of the system in a manner which would impair or threaten its availability to others (i.e. business use / excessive bandwidth consumption or to engage in illegal activities). If those terms are being observed, why it should matter on which side of a wall someone is seated?”

    Again, it comes down to the actual rules of the library, which can be reasonable in the way you state, or can be unreasonable, in which case the recourse is via complaints to elected representatives. From a strictly legal standpoint though, they can limit use in any way they want, so again it comes down to how they have actually limited it–what are their published rules?

    Posted by: Darcy at August 26, 2004 09:50 PM
    I don’t mean to call you out, but this original story sounds like a load of crap. so you were on this bench, and some cop comes up, because you look suspicious in front of the library. And then the cop somehow realizes, (since cops are so savvy) that you are using the internet. hmm, is this story just bait for comments?

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