Thinking Tech

Is a free WiFi cloud legal?

Posting in Cities

Does a WiFi network require a deep pockets sponsor, a "big brother" who will take legal responsibility and impose legal conditions on all users? WiFi actually provides the only means we have to create networks without those restrictions.

The most commented-upon post at this blog since its birth June 1 was a piece I actually wrote last month, on a do-it-yourself WiFi cloud.

Several readers pushed back against the idea. They worried about liability for what I might do linked with their bandwidth. They worried I might steal their bandwidth while they slept. (Picture from Techhui, a tech discussion site in Hawaii.) 

These same objections have helped scuttle both public and private WiFi cloud projects. In many of those which exist bandwidth is restricted, except to paying customers, and China-like censorware is deployed to prevent misuse.

Some of these objections are, I believe, mistaken. The Internet is not a series of tubes. It's not bits dripping down a faucet. If I give you the capacity to use my bandwidth there should be no financial harm to me, and if that's inferred it's mainly due to political objections upstream. The incremental cost of moving bits is near zero.

Other objerctions exist regardless of who runs the cloud. The potential for legal liability would be the same for a city or a phone company as it is for an ordinary user with an open router.

I pointed out that questions of liability might disappear if IPv6 were more widely deployed, so all routers and, indeed, all devices, had their own unique IP address and auditors could investigate who is being naughty.

But there's a more general concern I have with objections to this idea, and that is whether true open source networking is possible. Not techincally possible, but legally possible.

Because that's essentially what I proposed, a WiFi network created on the same basis as open source, which assumes that most people are decent and that communities can generally police themselves.

Does a WiFi network require a deep pockets sponsor, a "big brother" who will take legal responsibility and impose legal conditions on all users? WiFi actually provides the only means we have to create networks without those restrictions.

It's technically possible. Today, it's technically trivial. But is it legally possible, and what sort of legal changes could make it possible?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure