The Cost of Free Wi-Fi

The Cost of Free Wi-Fi

by / March 1, 2007

In August 2006, Culver City, Calif., officials decided the city ought to get into the censorship business.

It all started when Culver City, like so many others, joined the Wi-Fi craze by creating a network covering 10 square blocks of its downtown to provide free Internet access. People being people, some ne'er do wells evidently used the network to illegally trade copyrighted material, such as music and movies, and to download pornography.

This quote -- attributed to John Richo, Culver City's director of information technology -- appeared in a press release issued by the company that sold filtering software now used by the city: "Our hotspot was facilitating trading of illegal content. We don't condone copyright infringement, and we saw that we were at risk. Public agencies can be viewed as having deep pockets, and we are very sensitive to liability issues. Besides, P2P [peer-to-peer] file trading and pornographic Web sites are bandwidth hogs, and taxpayers don't want municipal funds used to enable illegal activity or minors' access to porn."

I pay taxes, and I don't care about who does what on a Wi-Fi network supported by my tax dollars. I don't think I'm alone. It's like being offended that some people use taxpayer-funded interstate highways to drive to Nevada to gamble or engage in other, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" activities.

That said, the question of risk can't be ignored. Just what would a local government's risk be of enabling copyright infringement or allowing minors the access to porn sites? I'm no lawyer, though I've read plenty of media coverage of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) suing people to throttle the practice of sharing digital media in violation of copyright protections.

I don't recall the RIAA trying to sue big Internet service providers like Comcast, Time Warner or AT&T. Courts have been reluctant to hold ISPs liable for the actions of their users, and it seems doubtful a local government that provided a Wi-Fi network would be hauled into court.

The argument that peer-to-peer/porn sites are bandwidth hogs is questionable, as well. I'm no network administrator, but a packet is a packet is a packet, isn't it? What does it matter what Web site it comes from? Isn't a video from PBS's Web site just as much of a bandwidth hog as a video from a porn site?

If a local government wants to create free Internet access via a Wi-Fi network, then that government should be prepared for people to use the network in all sorts of ways -- be it naughty or nice.

It's not for government to say what Web sites a person visits. Unless, of course, that government's headquartered in Beijing.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor