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Share your Wi-Fi with everyone, tech rights groups urge

You should unlock your Wi-Fi router so anyone close by can snag a connection. It’s good for you, your neighbors, and society at large.

This is the message of the Open Wireless Movement, which formally launched on Thursday, and is backed by 10 major technology-focused citizen rights groups that believe that a “ubiquitous open Internet” would usher in greater innovation, increased privacy online, and help “bridge the digital divide” between connected and disconnected citizens.

“We envision a world where sharing one’s Internet connection is the norm,” said Adi Kadmar, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the Open Wireless Movement’s founding groups, in a statement. “A world of open wireless would encourage privacy, promote innovation, and benefit the public good, giving us network access whenever we need it. And everyone – users, businesses, developers, and Internet service providers – can get involved to help make it happen.”

The nine other groups involved in the Open Wireless Movement include: Fight for the FutureFree Press,Internet ArchiveNYCwireless, the Open Garden FoundationOpenITP, the Open Spectrum Alliance, the Open Technology Institute, and the Personal Telco Project.

Web user privacy would get a boost from greater open Wi-Fi access because “using multiple IP addresses as one shifts from wireless network to wireless network… [would] make it more difficult for advertisers and marketing companies to track you without cookies,” writes Kadmar in a blog post on EFF.org. Innovation would “thrive,” as well, he says, due to the increased usability of “smart” devices, clothing, and accessories. Furthermore, smartphones and tablets would be able to “take advantage of persistent, higher quality connections to run apps more efficiently without reporting your whereabouts or communications.” And “[i]nventors and creators would not have to ask permission of cell phone companies to utilize their networks, both freeing up radio spectrum and reducing unnecessary barriers to entry.”

Of course, the main question that comes to mind is: Isn’t opening my Wi-Fi router to strangers dangerous? According to Open Wireless groups, the answer is a resounding “not necessarily.” As Kadmar explains, “many people have routers that already feature ‘guest networking’ capabilities,” which allows router owners to cordon off portions of their router to allow for both open and password-protected connections. “To make this even easier,”  writes Kadmar, “we are working with a coalition of volunteer engineers to build technologies that would make it simple for Internet subscribers to portion off their wireless networks for guests and the public while maintaining security, protecting privacy, and preserving quality of access.”

To see if your router has this capability, and how to enable it if it does, click here.

Moreover, many websites now use something called Transport Layer Security (TLS), which provides an added layer of protection against snooping beneath standard HTTPS connections. For websites without HTTPS, the EFF offers a browser extension for Firefox and Chrome, called HTTPS Everywhere, which does exactly what the name implies.

Even if security isn’t an issue, legal liability still is – or at least could be – if someone does something illegal, like pirating content, over your Wi-Fi connection. Still, the Open Wireless Movement groups say that the danger of getting roped into someone else’s copyright infringement activities is minimal thanks to protections in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which give immunity to “service providers,” a vaguely defined category the groups say likely includes anyone who opens their Wi-Fi connection for public use.

“In the United States, there are strong arguments that the significant legal protections that already apply to ISPs also apply to open wireless operators,” reads the Open Wireless Movement’s page on “myths and facts” of open wireless liability. “We believe these laws greatly reduce the risk of being held liable for the activities of neighbors and passersby. However, some risks do still exist.”

These risks include lawsuits from “Copyright trolls” who doll out thousands of lawsuits against potential copyright infringers based on nothing more than an IP address – a money-making tactic the courts may soon render impotent. Also, Internet service providers sometimes forbid the use of open Wi-Fi in their terms of service, which could potentially result in a loss of service. And police have been known to occasionally storm residents only to later discover that the illegal activity they aimed to stop was committed by a neighbor using an open Wi-Fi connection — but this is far from common.

The question now is: Will people brave these unlikely nightmares to take part in the Open Wireless Movement? Will you? Are you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.