Topic: Science & Technology

Real Life Ethics Trilogy, Part 2: Wireless Internet Freeloading
(12/4/2006)

My 12 year-old son happily announced that he had found a hot spot in our living room where he had wireless access to the internet. This was obviously spill-over from one of our neighbors, as our family has not entered the wireless generation. I told my son that he could not piggy-back on our neighbor's network, as it was unethical. "Why?" he asked. "It doesn't cost him money and he doesn't even know about it. Where's the harm?"

This is the ethical infraction known as freeloading…accepting the run-off benefits that others are paying for without contributing to the cost. It is often justified by the popular rationalization "no harm, no foul," but there is harm, there is definitely a foul, and ethically it is a clear-cut avoidance of responsibility with a little dishonesty mixed in.

Using the wireless network paid for by my neighbor is essentially sharing his property without his consent. My neighbor has not made it known that anyone within range is welcome to use what he has bought. People who argue that "what he doesn't know won't hurt him" must swear to me that it would be hunky-dory if a family of strangers used their living rooms every night to play Twister. Keeping wrongful conduct secret…marital affairs, leaks of sensitive information to the press…does not make it less wrongful.

Of course, heavy downloading by a freeloader will dramatically slow the internet access speed of the user paying for the service. In that instance, the unethical nature of the unauthorized use is difficult to deny, though many net freeloaders will try.

An informal online poll by CNN got responses from more than 34,000 individuals, and 36 percent did not consider using a neighbor's internet signal without their consent to be "stealing," possibly using the same logic that claims that taking copyrighted music off the internet isn't "stealing" because the supply of what has been taken is not diminished.

One otherwise excellent philosophy book currently on the market analogizes the situation to someone listening to a public outdoor concert without paying admission, but that's a false comparison. The concert producers are well aware that their product is being heard by those who didn't pay admission, and the fringe listeners are not getting the same experience as ticket-holders. The analogy seems to be based on the ethically objectionable argument by some wireless freeloaders that (quoting a website defense of the practice) "people who don't take the time to secure their networks are practically announcing that it's not a big problem for others to use their service." And women who wear sexy clothes are practically begging to be raped.

A far better analogy is stealing cable channels by splicing into a neighbor's cable service, an act that is illegal and universally recognized as stealing.* Using someone else's wireless network is more ethically acceptable to some because the unauthorized borrower just has to get within range, but what kind of ethical principle is that? The easier it is to steal, the less wrong it is? Comparing the two forms of freeloading makes it clear there are two victims here: the customer paying for a service secretly used by a freeloader, and the service provider. If the service provider's product, the wireless network in the case of my son, is being used without payment, the provider is being cheated. The rationalization that this isn't true because the surreptitious borrower wouldn't have paid to acquire the service legitimately is, like the other rationalizations, intellectually dishonest. The Scoreboard's response is simply this: prove it. It's too easy to say that you would never pay for something when you're getting it free.

To all those freeloaders out there who somehow never pick up a check when the gang goes out for a beer, who never buy a tank of gas for the friend who always gives you a ride home, who never buy a pack of cigarettes but is always bumming them off of others, who watch Cubs games from the rooftops, and who never pay their taxes, this is the principle you're violating. If others are paying for a product or service that you are enjoying for free, you are cheating either the paying consumers, the providers, or both. Any other interpretation is just a way to try to justify the unjustifiable.

* David M. Kauchak, 32, of Winnebago County, Ill., was sentenced to a year of probation and a $250 fine this January for using a neighbor's wireless network. An act doesn't have to be illegal to be unethical of course, but if stealing cable TV is a crime, there is no good reason for wireless internet freeloading to be treated any differently.

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