Taking something that’s free is a felony?

This story‘s a few days old, but I was too busy to get around to it in a timely fashion. A Michigan man is being prosecuted for using a cafe’s free WiFi from his car. It’s free. He took it. Now he’s charged with felony “fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks”. It’s a state law, so your mileage may vary, but I live here and have to deal with this idiocy. He could be fined $10,000 and serve 5 years in prison. For using something that was being given away for free.

However, prosecutors do not plan to throw the book at him … he will pay a $400 fine and do 40 hours of community service, and the arrest will not go on his record.

Oh. That’s so much better. Who the hell wrote this stupid law? (I’m betting it was written by internet service providers who don’t like people sharing.) And just because prosecutors are “letting him off easy” doesn’t change the fact that he could serve time in prison for this.

This arrest is idiotic for more than just the obvious reason (no harm in using something that’s being given away).

  • The officer didn’t know about the law. He was just suspicious.
  • The cafe didn’t know about the law. They didn’t really seem to care.
  • The guy in the car didn’t know about the law. This is really something that could have been settled with an “I’ll let you off with a warning this time.”

Here’s how the technology works:

  • The cafe is broadcasting radio waves, announcing its presence and inviting computers in.
  • The laptop receives these radio waves, and broadcasts its own radio waves attempting to talk to the cafe.
  • The cafe receives, chooses to listen, and chooses to handle any requests broadcast by the laptop.

There are 3 points at which the cafe could break things off:

  1. They could not broadcast their identity (thereby, not inviting the laptop in). Paying customers could be informed of the identity, enabling them to receive signals.
  2. They could not accept broadcasts from the laptop (firewall). Of course, that would impact paying customers as well.
  3. They could regulate who gets their internet requests processed or denied (proxy). This is commonly used by hotels, so that only current guests can use the hotel wi-fi.

Failure to do any of those 3 things should be (but obviously isn’t) taken as permission to access the network, because that’s the way the technology is designed.

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