Astounded by things legal

I am astounded. No, not over Melinda Dolittle getting booted from "American Idol" (although the gods know that was a bizarre and irritating decision on the part of the great unwashed). I am astounded by things legal.

My first bout of astonishment is over the ongoing travesty of justice that is the Julie Amero case discussed in Backspin a few weeks ago. Amero is a substitute teacher who was convicted in January of exposing a group of eighth graders to Internet porn and faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in jail. I won’t go into the whole background of the case but you can check out my original Backspin column and this Wikipedia entry for the details.

(Read more on the Amero case.)

Amero’s sentencing, which was to be on May 18, was deferred for the fifth time. This is some weird kind of bureaucratic cruelty. The judge who heard the case and the district attorney who is prosecuting should be ashamed — you can find their details on Amero’s blog; drop them a note, I’m sure they would like to hear from you.

The other thing astounding me is history that keeps repeating itself. Remember the case of the Florida man who was prosecuted for a third-degree felony for using an unsecured Wi-Fi access point without permission? How about the Illinois man who was arrested for the same thing, which cost him a fine of $250 and one year of court supervision? Or the man in Washington or the one in Alaska? All of these people were arrested and prosecuted for doing something that isn’t totally dissimilar from reading a book using the light that spills out of your neighbor’s front porch.

An almost identical case recently happened in Sparta, Mich. Sam Peterson II had apparently developed the habit of parking near the Reunion Street Café at lunchtime and checking his e-mail. Many commentators on this case have contended that to do this without purchasing anything could be seen as unethical.

I disagree. There are many organizations and businesses that provide free public access so isn’t it reasonable to assume that an unencrypted Wi-Fi access point that doesn’t display any login challenge or informational Web page declaring the its acceptable use policy (which, as far as I can determine, was the case with the café) is available for free use?

Continuing my earlier analogy, if your neighbor puts up a sign that reads “Don’t use the light from my porch," then it would be unethical to continue to do so. On the other hand, if he doesn’t, then it would seem reasonable and ethical to assume that he doesn’t care and that you can use his light.

Anyway, one of Sparta’s finest spotted Peterson sitting in his car, asked what he was doing and Peterson fessed up thinking that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. The officer told the café owner who, as far as I could determine from talking with a very nice lady in the Sparta Police Department, decided to press charges (the café owner was “not available" when I called).

The law Peterson broke in Michigan is similar to the laws used to charge the Wi-Fi “thieves" in other sates; laws originally defined to deal with hacking. Exactly what kind of ignorant warped perspective you need to consider accessing the Internet over a generic, unsecured Wi-Fi service as hacking I can’t imagine, but there you have it.

The end of this pathetic case is that the prosecutor’s office decided not to charge Peterson with a felony (damn decent of them). Instead, they fined him $400 and gave him 40 hours of community service, but won’t put it on his record.

I can’t help but think that, but for simple luck, this could have been me or you. If we wanted to check our e-mail and found an open access point we probably would use it and could well have got caught just as Peterson did.

What bothers me about all of these Wi-Fi cases is: when did America become so tolerant of ignorance? When did we stop believing that people are responsible for the consequences of their actions and their inactions? It isn’t a secret that anyone can access an unprotected Wi-Fi access point, so how did the law become responsible for making up for Wi-Fi owners’ technical negligence?

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Learn more about this topic

Amero school-porn case raises questions of classroom computers, spyware


Crime and punishment and technology


Fla. man arrested for stealing Wi-Fi


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