Search your possible wireless connections right now--provided you're nowhere near a cafe or a fast food restaurant hotspot--and chances are you'll find a range of tantalizing options: a "Welcome to the Nuthouse" or a "UAJ7899" or maybe one of those mysterious "Free Public WiFi" networks. But none of them are likely to be free or public; chances are they're all locked behind unguessable passwords.
We are strangely territorial when it comes to our wireless networks. The idea of someone siphoning off our precious bandwidth without paying for it is, for most people, completely unacceptable. But the Open Wireless Movement wants to change all that.
“We are trying to create a movement where people are willing to share their network for the common good,” says Adi Kamdar, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of the movement's leaders. “It's a neighborly thing to do.”
That's right, upstanding citizen of the internet, you can be a good neighbor just by opening your wireless network to strangers. Or so the line goes. The ultimate vision is one of neighborhoods completely void of passwords, where any passerby can quickly jump on your network to read the news, find directions, or check their email.
At stake, the promoters of open wireless argue, are the health of communities in a digitally-divided America. The US currently stands ninth in a ranking of developed countries for broadband access, which is increasingly important for job seeking or school work. Currently 119 million people that live in the US don’t subscribe to broadband Internet, and 19 million don’t even have the option to get it. A more open network could help kids do their class assigments without having to huddle over a table at the local fast-food joint. And during disasters like Hurricane Sandy, an unlocked Wi-Fi connection could mean an extra lifeline to the outside world.
But the Open Wireless Movement, Kamdar is quick to point out, isn't just a humanitarian project. When the Internet is completely open, and access isn't connected to particular individuals but instead shared among a group, personal privacy is enhanced. Right now, police officers and copyright holders are still in the habit of confusing your IP address with you, essentially considering it a virtual ID card. That means if someone downloads episodes of Game of Thrones while slurping data from your router, Time Warner is going to send you a threatening letter if the IP address is in your name.
Court cases have ruled both ways when it comes to these kinds of cases. The EFF wants to make it clear: you are not your IP address. The recent suicide of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, who was facing up to 35 years in jail for downloading and sharing five million academic articles from JSTOR on MIT's network, is a grim reminder of the complexities surrounding the issue of who owns information and who should be allowed to distribute it. Ultimately, the more open and decentralized the web is, the easier it will be to make information free.
It sounds certainly noble when we talk about academic articles and, it should be noted, JSTOR and MIT didn't press charges against Swartz--federal prosecutors did. Why did the federal government go after him? Switch out academic articles for Hollywood movies or videogames and you'll understand. A free and open internet, however you define it, is certainly not the dream of corporate America.