Friday, December 22, 2006

Letter about the Wifi Mooching Case

I was extremely interested by a letter in the Straits Times Forum. The letter referenced the Wifi Mooching case, in which a youth was found guilty of tapping illegally into a neighbour's wireless internet (this is known as mooching).

Apparently, many people do not agree with the sentence, or even the basic point of whether this was a crime in the first place. Two main arguments were raised to support the notion that this was not a crime. The first is that the act of mooching, at least in this particular incident, did not have any significant or discernable effect on the 'victim', since the youth was only engaging in casual surfing which consumed only a modicum of bandwidth. If we are to judge a crime based on the severity of the crime, then this clearly would only amount to a very minor infraction at best.

The second argument is the failure of the 'victim' in securing his Wifi connection. In the words of the letter writer,
Take the analogy of two adjacent landed houses. One owner sets up a lawn sprinkler which sprays over the hedge into the neighbour's yard. The neighbour captures the runoff and uses it to water his plants. Is he 'stealing' water? Who is to blame here? Is there a crime, and who is the victim?
I believe the second argument is flawed. If someone forgets to lock the door to his house, is it then justified to take items from that house? Even if that someone were to leave his front door wide open, this does not allow us to misappropiate anything. At best, we can only reprimand the 'victim' for his negligence or even his stupidity, but this does not obscure the fact that a crime was committed.

Now, let us return to the first argument. Again, I believe that this argument is problematic. The problem lies in the false relation between harm and crime. Just because an action has no discernable effect on the victim does not mean that a crime has not been committed. Consider the following example: Each day, before you pick up your mail, I, out of pure curiosity, read through your mail and seal it such that you would not notice any intrusion. Given that I do not misuse any information thus learned, and furthermore behave as if nothing had happened, you would never come to learn of this nor be disadvantaged in any real or physical way. Would this then justify my reading of your mail, and thus the invasion of your privacy? If the answer is no, then the question is, what exactly is the harm done?

I would argue that Wifi leeching is at least morally wrong, not neccessarily because it 'harms' anyone, but because it reflects a mindset which is undesirable. The idea that it is acceptable to take anything, at no cost to oneself, is dangerous, even if taking the item cost others little. It is the same kind of selfish mindset which encourages, among other acts, software and media piracy. Surely, this mindset should be discouraged.

Of course, I would question whether we should make a crime out of what is merely morally wrong, or whether we should make it a crime only to discourage selfish behaviour. In this respect, I believe I am aligned with the critics, because if elements of harm are absent, then the crime itself should only be lightly punished.

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