Earlier this week, digital activists alerted us to a concerning situation in Austin, Texas: officers at the local police department had announced a plan to search out all of the individuals running open wifi connections in Austin and warn them about potential dangers of running an open network. Thankfully, quick mobilization by our friends at EFF Austin helped stall this plan before it could take effect.
The officers at the Austin Police Department reportedly planned to seek out open wifi networks and then "make contact with residents who have open wireless connections and teach them the importance of securing them." They listed concerns such as exceeding the number of connections permitted by your ISP or being vulnerable to having someone piggy-back on your Internet connection to engage in illegal activity. To us, the police officers' plan was basically wardriving coupled with unsolicited scare-tactics from law enforcement agents. We’re also skeptical about the police’s role in educating users about ISP terms of service, which we submit is hardly the best use of law enforcement’s limited resources.
We were particularly concerned and disappointed by the Austin Police Department’s bleak characterization of open wifi. While the APD officers were keen to educate users about the potential negative ramifications of running an open wifi network, they failed to let people know that there are numerous societal benefits to opening your network. Anyone who has been lost in a city wishing they could snag an Internet connection for a map can attest to the benefits of having an open network connection. And many others, like security expert Bruce Schneier, have called for open wifi because it’s just plain polite.
We echo EFF Austin's comments on this issue:
Missing from the cited analysis is any recognition of potential benefits to be gained from publicly sharing one’s wireless access point. Lately, the virtues of contributing to any shared commons tends to be overshadowed by fears of bad actors (both real and imagined).
As we’ve discussed before, the current state of closed wifi networkings is a tragedy of the commons. If people had mechanisms for opening their wireless connections without jeopardizing bandwidth or privacy, we could all enjoy a world where people in most urban or semi-urban places could easily access the Internet, and even rural areas could be dotted with open networks. That’s why EFF has called for an open wifi movement—advocating for a world in which people could share their wifi connections with others without excessive burdens on their bandwidth or increased security risks. Our movement needs both technical solutions and a shift in social expectations. We’re pleased that a coalition of interested groups and technologists has begun to form around this issue, and we’re looking forward to launching a joint effort in the coming months.
For now, we urge the Austin Police Department to keep in mind the myriad benefits of open and freely available Internet access to the people of Austin.