You Got to Be Kidding Me!

No, Virginia, there’s still no free lunch

Posted in Computers and Software, Economics by Stacy McMahon on June 23, 2006

I read a post on Slashdot today about a guy who got arrested for freeloading on a coffee shop’s free wi-fi. For three months, he consistently parked in their lot for long periods of time and surfed the web. Unsurprisingly, plenty of commenters claimed that hey, the WAP is open and unsecured, so he’s justified in using it. The fact that he never came inside and bought anything is irrelevant.

Well, it’s not irrelevant. One of the comparisons made was to someone sitting on a bench outside the store at night and reading by the light coming from the windows. You wouldn’t have someone arrested for that, would you? Of course it’s absolutely not the same thing. The light coming from the window is there whether anyone’s “using” it or not. You reading your book doesn’t raise the store’s electric bill. You connecting to their WAP however, a.) uses up one of the fixed number of clients and b.) uses up some of their bandwidth, probably a lot of it since they are probably not shelling out for a DS3 in order to give it away. So, unlike the light on the sidewalk, using the WAP costs the store something in the sense that the more people freeload, the more expensive it will be to make sure paying customers can still go online.

Of course that doesn’t stop the people who think the internet is a Star Trek-zone where normal economics doesn’t apply and they should be entitled to get everything net-related for free. Unfortunately, I think this is in part another bad side-effect of the RIAA’s attempt to hold onto its moldy old business model: conventional wisdom at this point has it that any attempt to clamp down on online freeloading is based entirely on the bad motivations of Evil Giant Corporations(tm) and that supply and demand is just a quaint concept from the Old Economy(tm).

And Oceana has always been at war with Eurasia!

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6 Responses

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  1. ClintJCL said, on June 23, 2006 at 7:41 pm

    Disagree and Agree, with explanation:

    Just as a store could close its blinds to prevent someone from reading by its light, so could the wirelesss access point *easily* be closed to prevent someone from using it. They made the choice, intentionally or not, to leave it open for anyone to use.

    There was no terms of service or usage contract; in theory he can’t truly know for 100% that it’s even Starbuck’s access point. And there is anti-wifi wallpaper that they could use to keep even an open wifi signal restricted to their domicile (dunno about the windows of the establishment though; the signal might still get out regardless).

    However, in this case, the police asked the guy to move along after the establishment called the police. He only got arrested after refusing to do so.

    His real crime as far as society is concerned was not listening to the police… he was charged with no actual crime.

    They arrested him without charging him, because they weren’t sure if he was actually breaking the law. If he was not, then he should not have been arrested; end of story.

    (Tresspassing, maybe?)

  2. Vickyhttp://tgaw.wordpress.com said, on June 23, 2006 at 7:42 pm

    Hmm… I’m not 100% set on my opinion. But my initial response to reading that is I would classify the store keeping that access open as incompetence. I’ve been to plenty of run-down, poduck hotels in obscure locations who managed to lock down their Internet. If they can do it, then any company can.

    And I don’t think it is especially wrong to capitalize on the incompetence of others.

    For example, if a cashier gives me back the wrong amount of change, I typically will give it back, but I don’t think I’m obligated to and I certainly won’t stay up all night thinking about it if I did. And if I did, there is indeed harm to the store– they are losing money, but it was their own mistake, their own incompetence, that triggered the loss.

    I know someone who purchased a new DVD player, back when the units were expensive – $400 – $500. Turns out the store never charged their credit card. Do I think they were bad people for not contacting the store and rectifying the error? Absolutely not. That is the cost the company must pay for their poor process control.

    People as well as corporations really do need to pay for their idiotic decisions. If there are no consequences, there is no motive to actually improve and do the job right.

    Furthermore– if the store was noticing this guy out there for three months stealing their internet and looking at their usage and bills going up and fielding complaints from customers about performance… then, I must question why they didn’t put a preventative action in place. I think that is their second display of incompetence right there.

    I’m sorry to disagree with you, but it sounds like the coffee shop may have gotten what they deserved.

    But– I’d be happy to review the Slashdot thread and give the matter more consideration if you still have a link! 🙂

  3. Stacy McMahon said, on June 23, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    Hmm, I guess what I was getting at is not that people should necessarily get jail time for taking advantage of a loophole, but that the guy is an ass for freeloading like that. Not that I’m turning around; I just wasn’t clear on that in the post originally.

    As Clint mentioned, in this case the police had warned the guy off before. He came back and did it again, so they had to do something about it at that point. In that sense it’s one of those you-have-to-draw-the-line-somewhere things.

    Anyway, here’s the /. link

  4. Vickyhttp://tgaw.wordpress.com said, on June 24, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    Hahaha. I just read the article on KATU. In my previous comment I said “People as well as corporations really do need to pay for their idiotic decisions.”

    Well– I’d say if the police tell you knock something off and you come back and do it again…. yeah, that’s probably an idiotic decision! 🙂

  5. Stacy McMahon said, on June 24, 2006 at 2:43 pm

    Hmm, blogger appears to have eaten Carolyn’s comment. I have the notification email, but it doesn’t show up anywhere else. Here it is:

    “The free wi-fi from Starbucks really saved me at Snowshow in January. I was *very* surprised when I inquired about the wi-fi and they told me it was free, and that all I had to do to get on was just join the network. I got a 1/2 price holiday coffee that was on sale because it was January (which was why I was in Starbucks in the first place), and I sat in the corner and sent instant messages to clint with the little information I already had about where we were going to be staying (all of which turned out to be incorrect because they had to move us).

    That whole day, I kept going in and out of Starbucks just for the wifi… i didn’t always buy a cup of coffee though, and i also didn’t always use the internet… starbucks just ended up as the most comfortable place to hang out and wait for time to pass without looking like a total loser. the restaurant that we were meeting at was just too crowded and had nothing to offer me at the time.

    And to comment on Vicky’s comment about giving back change if it’s wrong, one time when I was in high school, I was shopping with my mom for a present for Vicky’s graduation. I got her a bunch of stuff, and one of the things was a set of towels. The cashier ended up not ringing up the washcloths, and I was happy because that was going to save me a bit of my hard-earned money. When we got to the parking lot, I mentioned it to Mom, and she got all upset and made me go back in and pay for the washcloths. D’oh.”

    [Stacy — that is unusual for Starbucks to have _free_ wifi. Everywhere else, they have T-Mobile and it’s something like $6/1st hour and 10c/min thereafter.]

  6. Christina said, on June 30, 2006 at 8:06 pm

    Stacy said, “I guess what I was getting at is not that people should necessarily get jail time for taking advantage of a loophole, but that the guy is an ass for freeloading like that.

    Yes. Just because the loophole is there, does not mean it should be taken advantage of. I think much of society agrees on this point. It’s legal to go to the very end of the merge lane on a highway, but most people think that the guy who does it is an ass. The ball player who makes his career drawing fouls by taking dives is considered a jerk by opposing fans. And if the police ask you to cut something out and you keep doing it, I think you’re an idiot. But dialing 911 for this is also tying up emergency services with a non-emergency. So…

    hey Stacy, how’s life?


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