Free Wi-Fi: The Movement to Give Away Your Internet for the Sake of Humanity

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.

Jan 30 2013, 4:10pm

Search your possible wireless connections 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, use Google Maps to 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 McDonalds. 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.

As for your own personal liability, Kamdar points out that if you are running an open wireless network, you should be considered an internet service provider, like Verizon or Comcast. The often-criticized Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 actually serves to protect you from whatever copyright infringement might occur on your network.

Google, making good connections in Chelsea

Privately-owned public internets

The idea of sharing Internet is so good (and so potentially good for business) that Google is entering the fray, providing free Wi-Fi to the Chelsea neighborhood surrounding its New York office. It's easy to be cynical about this; it will, after all, benefit Google's employees and the residents of one of the city's toniest neighborhoods. Yet it will also provide free internet access to tourists, children in Chelsea's public schools, and the low-income population living in the federally subsidized Fulton Houses. It's a move that gives Google an ongoing source of good PR for the relatively low initial cost of $115,000 and annual maintenance fees of $45,000. 

Many municipalities' dreams of free Wi-Fi die on the vine after city officials see the bill. While Senator Chuck Schumer was all grins during Google's ceremony in Chelsea, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was quick to remind everyone that New York City had no plans to provide everyone with free internet access. That could be an easy task for Google. On top of the Manhattan plan, the company that wants to be everywhere online could also, some suspect, be trying to bring everywhere online, too. It already provides free Wi-Fi in the areas around its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters and its data centers in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Berkeley, South Carolina; over the summer, it paid the Boingo Wi-Fi service to supply Internet to New York subway stations.

As the cable companies scramble to install "free" Wi-FI hotspots for their customers around municipalities like New York (so far, 50,000 have been installed nationwide), Google's plans sound bigger, naturally. The company recently requested a license from the FCC to run an experiment at its Mountain View campus with a kind of Wi-Fi that uses the licensed spectrum--presumably a technology that would improve upon Wi-Max. The company is being secretive about what this is for, but the technology could be like Wi-Fi on steroids, capable of providing fast speeds over much greater distances than pre-existing wireless. Google could parlay its experiment into a wireless add on for its customers in Kansas City, where last year the Google Fiber project began rolling out another big public internet service, offering the highest-speed connections in the nation. There is always a catch though. Google could, for instance, play like the cable companies and maintain an integrated system, requiring anyone who wants to join a free wireless network to be using an Android device.

Of course, relying on a single corporation or government entity for access to the internet is hardly ideal. In the Motherboard documentary "Free the Network," Isaac Wilder, a hacker and founder of the Free Network Foundation, imagines a “communications infrastructure that is owned and operated cooperatively, by the whole of humanity, rather than by corporations and states.” Wilder's Freedom Towers, initially used to provide internet access to Occupy protesters, are the ultimate utopian vision of the Internet: free, unregulated service providers too decentralized to be censored or shut down. It would be easy to terminate Google's Wi-Fi network, if the government or shareholders demanded it. Thousands of independent wireless networks, not so much. (No wonder Wilder left New York last year for Kansas City, the heart of Google Fiber.)

There is another way open wireless networks could usher in a new age of internet privacy: By reducing your reliance on your phone and turning you to anonymized web connections. “Cellphones are basically little tracking devices,” says Kamdar. “We want to create a system where people can surf the web or do simple tasks wherever they are without being tracked.”

Adi Kamdar, open wireless advocate

Steal this net

As far as utopian visions of the future, it all sounds good: homes, coffee shops, libraries all offering free internet, with nary a password to block you from access and no Big Brother looking over your shoulder. A fight against a classic tragedy of the commons, just as people are learning to lock down their connections. But why, exactly, should you let people use your internet connection? Won't it slow you down? What about the security risks?

First, let's address the problem of moochers slowing you down. Right now, some routers can create separate guest networks, but they portion off a part of your bandwidth to do it. Kamdar and the Open Wireless Network are working with developers to create smarter routers that make more of your bandwidth available when you're not using it and then limit it to others when you are. A system like that means there is little disadvantage to sharing - when you want to watch Netflix, you'll have all of the bandwidth you need. Others can go elsewhere, just in case you have a lot of Breaking Bad to catch up on.

The limits, however, aren't just technical. Many of the larger internet service providers have terms in their contracts that forbid maintaining an open wireless network. The Open Wireless Movement is hoping to convince them that open networks are good advertising and, with caps on bandwidth, they don't do much to hurt the bottom line. So far BT, one of the UK's largest telecommunications companies, has been the most receptive. That might have something to do with BT's chief security technology officer: Bruce


Schneier, the author and security pundit (right) who just so happens to run an open wireless network.

In rebuke to incredulous readers of his blog, wondering why the hell a security expert would open up his network to his neighbors, Schneier recently wrote, “If someone did commit a crime using my network the police might visit, but what better defense is there than the fact that I have an open wireless network? If I enabled wireless security on my network and someone hacked it, I would have a far harder time proving my innocence.” 

Still, it's going to take a lot more than idealism to convince other big telecom companies that they should allow people to share their internet connections, especially when there is money to be made selling expensive mobile hotspots. That means the crux of the movement, if it is to come, has to be ordinary people opening up their wireless networks to complete strangers. Even if takes hold in dense, tech-savvy cities like San Francisco, home-base of Kamdar and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the movement still has to prove it can take hold in places where people are more spread out and less idealistic. That is going to take a lot of faith on the part of regular internet subscribers: faith that people won't download illegal or copyrighted material and faith that the courts will be on their side if they do. That's where the utopian talk comes in.

“Wouldn't it be nice if you walk around and have access to a wireless network anywhere?” says Kamdar after I ask him for a sample pitch. Sure. And if access to the internet is a human right, as some activists would have you believe, then the Open Wireless Movement could be the first step toward something much larger. First, however, you need to take a few minutes, delete your password, and open your network to your neighbors. And then hope someone will do the same for you.



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Top image via FBoyd / Flickr