Gary Schaffer looked out his window here last week to discover a reporter standing on his lawn, pirating his wireless Internet access to test a new mobile phone.
The phone, made by Belkin, is one of several new mobile devices that allow users to make free or low-cost phone calls over the Internet. They are designed to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of wireless access points deployed in cafes, parks, businesses and, most important, homes.
The technology’s advocates say that as long as people are paying for high-speed Wi-Fi access in their homes, they should be able to use it as a conduit for inexpensive calls and an alternative to traditional phone service.
But, in a twist that raises some tricky ethical and legal questions, the phones can also be used on the go, piggybacking on whatever access points happen to be open and available, like that of Mr. Schaffer.
For his part, Mr. Schaffer said he would mind only if it had an adverse effect on him — which in theory it could, if the voice data caused congestion on his network. There is no clear indication to a network’s owner that a phone call is taking place, so most will not have the chance to object.
Not everyone is so open to walk-by talkers. “I don’t like it,” Kevin Asbra, another San Franciscan, said. “It’s an abuse of the system. I pay my bills. Why should you call for free?”
His wife, Karen Seratti, begged to differ. A Web site usability tester, she says she regularly looks for open access points so she can check e-mail when she is traveling or away from the office.
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“There’s a big debate going on right now,” said Jennifer S. Granick, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. Ms. Granick said some people believed that using a connection without permission constituted unauthorized access to computers, which is a crime, while others disagree.
Traditional analogies are hard to come by, she said, adding that she does not believe using Wi-Fi is the same as trespassing, since the signals travel beyond property limits. “People say that you can’t go inside somebody’s house; but I say, you can sit outside and listen to the radio,” Ms. Granick said.
To me, this raises a number of policy and ethical questions. To some extent, the way in which you resolve these questions hinges on what you imagine the future of the telecom industry to be.