About a month ago, I was in Kincardine, a really sleepy little Canadian port on Lake Huron. I desperately needed to email somebody an article that I'd just written.
It was a very sunny day so I sat on a bench in Main Street under a huge pine tree and opened up my laptop. I was "piggybacking" – checking to see if there were any "hotspots" that I could use to get online.
As with most urban environments, there were loads. My laptop showed that I was in range of 10 different signals. I tried two and they needed passwords but the third one didn't and allowed me to go online. I sent my article and was just checking the score in the Test Match when a very angry Canadian (quite funny in itself: it's like being savaged by Ned Flanders) stormed up to me and accused me of "stealing his internet".
It turned out that he was the owner of a coffee shop on the other side of the road that charged patrons two dollars for internet access. This man was getting quite hysterical and I found it difficult to stop laughing. I explained to him that I was sitting in a public place and I didn't even know whose connection it was that I was using. Not that it mattered, if you don't want someone to use your signal then make sure that they need to use a password.
Ned Flanders went mental and said that I was a criminal and that he was off to get the police. I laughed and told him that I'd be delighted if he did. He stormed off but, sadly, after 10 minutes, I had to get to the beach to meet my family so I'll never know whether a troop of Mounties turned up to arrest me.
I thought that this story was so amusing that I've been telling everyone about it and about how ridiculous the guy was ... until yesterday. I'm on the BBC News website (don't worry, I was using my own broadband connection at home) and there's a "heated debate" as to whether it's all right to use somebody else's wireless broadband connection in order to access the internet. Unbelievably, a man was actually arrested in Chiswick, west London, last week for sitting outside a house and using the owner's signal to get online on his laptop.
"Dishonestly obtaining free internet access is an offence under the Communications Act 2003 and a potential breach of the Computer Misuse Act," said a police spokesman.
I was absolutely stunned – the practice of this "dark art" has saved me many a time when I've been trying to pick up my emails or send off an article away from home.
I love scouring an area trying to find an open link to send in my columns. I suppose that it's the closest I'll ever get to hunting. I get my "equipment" ready – a fully charged laptop and a vehicle.
Then I get in and cruise around, stopping the car every five minutes or so to see if I can get a non-password-enabled signal while trying not to look too much like a stalker. It's incredibly satisfying, harms nobody and allows you to read my witterings wherever I am in the world. What could be better?
In most big cities, if you're really organised, you can subscribe to some company, pay a monthly fee, and then pop into places like Starbucks to get online. But why bother when you can do it for free and not bother anybody?
Besides, sometimes I just don't want a Cappo-Fukko-Grande-Skinny-Americano. I only want to get online for two minutes and send an email.
I tend to rate hotels by whether they charge for the internet or not. I had this problem at the St Martin's Lane Hotel in London where they charge a fortune for Wi-Fi access. Then I found that if you get a room facing the back there's an open hotspot, so I started using that (bet I never get a back room now...).
In the US there are already cities that are completely online and it won't be long until that happens here. Sadly, I'm pretty sure that Ken Livingstone will think of some way to charge us all for it.
So, personally, I'm pretty confident that I'll continue to piggyback. I can understand the problem if some company with a staff of 50 started to use your home connection. But random, solo piggybacking is totally harmless and I'm afraid that the law, in this case, is an ass.com.Reuse content