Piggybacking on someone else’s wifi connection must be a major problem. The
Sunday New York Times has a big
story on it, quoting people from all over the country, and featuring the
work of three reporters. The headline? "Hey Neighbor, Stop Piggybacking
on My Wireless".
The opening anecdote features Mr and Mrs Brodeur in Los Angeles, whose connection,
we are told, became "as slow as rush-hour traffic on the 405 freeway"
because of piggybacking neighbors:
The additional online traffic nearly choked out the Brodeurs, who pay a $40
monthly fee for their Internet service, slowing down their access until it
was practically unusable.
This may be true, but if so it’s uncommon. The vast majority of broadband customers
in the US are not throttled: their ISPs don’t artificially constrain their bandwidth.
So most of the time it makes precious little difference whether your neighbor
uses his own broadband connection or yours, especially if, as is likely, he
would be buying bandwidth from the same place that you are. The size of the
pipe into the neighborhood is unchanged.
Of course, the New York Times doesn’t go into such details. Instead, we get
sentences like these:
Some, like Marla Edwards, who believe they have locked intruders
out of their networks, learn otherwise.
Many who piggyback say the practice does not feel like theft
because it does not seem to actually take anything away from anyone.
When Ms. Ramirez asked the man what he was doing, he said he was stealing
a wireless Internet connection because he did not have one at home
The clear implication is that piggybacking is theft, is stealing,
that those who do it are intruders, and that while it may not seem
to take something away from anyone… but there the thought ends. At no point
do the article’s authors actually come out and explain whether or not piggybacking
is theft, or what might be being taken away. They just leave the idea hanging,
It’s not long before we start to understand why the article seems so biased.
Look at who gets cited next:
Piggybacking, makers of wireless routers say, is increasingly
an issue for users who live in densely populated areas like New York City…
Now, it’s pretty obvious why makers of wireless routers might be opposed to
piggybacking: why they’re hardly impartial observers. But the obvious conflict
is never addressed. Instead, we get yet another company with a dog in this race:
"The best case is that you end up giving a neighbor a free ride,"
[said David Cole of Symantec]. "The worse case is that someone can destroy
your computer, take your files and do some really nefarious things
with your network that gets you dragged into court."
Does Mr Cole or the New York Times come up with even one instance where such
a thing has happened? No. Instead, we’re given a free plug for Mr Cole’s product:
Mr. Cole said Symantec and other companies had created software that could
not only lock out most network intruders but also protect computers and their
content if an intruder managed to gain access.
In other words, what we have here is the New York Times uncritically parroting
the propaganda of companies who have everything to gain by scaring people about
how horrible and borderline illegal piggybacking is. It would have been much
more responsible to have an objective look at the issue and see whether it really
is doing any measurable harm.
A broadband connection is a wonderful thing, and most people barely use more
than a tiny fraction of the bandwidth that they’re paying for. So it’s not necessarily
"a passive protest of what they consider the exorbitant cost of Internet
access" when they leave their networks open: rather, it can be simple altruism,
and pleasure in helping other people out.
I pay for my broadband. Occasionally, however, like any internet service, it
goes down. Then, it’s very useful to be able to piggyback on someone else’s
connection while I’m trying to work out what the problem is. Similarly, I’m
happy to return the favour if one of my neighbor’s connections goes down. Is
sharing of broadband an example of being a bad neighbor, as the New York Times
would have it? I rather think it’s exactly the opposite.