Cnet reports a spanish startup company called Whisher is trying to offer an easy way to share Wi-Fi Internet access. They hope that broadband consumers will share access to their connection with others via the consumer’s existing Wi-Fi router. If large numbers of broadband customers share their connection then a mesh Wi-Fi network will develop without municipal or commercial development.
The Cnet article stated the snag in this utopian view of free Wi-Fi for everyone is that “[i]n the U.S., it’s illegal.” Illegal? On July 8, 2005, Cnet ran an article titled “FAQ: Wi-Fi mooching and the law” indicating it is not clear whether or not sharing Wi-Fi is legal. The article stated, “It depends on the wording of your contract with your broadband provider.”
Law.com’s legal dictionary defines “illegal” as “1) adj. in violation of statute, regulation or ordinance, which may be criminal or merely not in conformity. . .”
If the contract with your broadband provider prohibits you from sharing the connection outside of your residence, then you would be in breach of the contract if you shared in that way. While you may be liable—meaning required to pay money to the provider—for violating the contract, it is not generally considered “illegal” to breach a contract. It would be illegal if a statute, regulation or ordinance prohibited you from sharing the connection outside of your home. I am not aware of any statute, regulation or ordinance specifically prohibiting such sharing (although one could exist).
Contract law does not seek to punish the breaching party but instead generally seeks to put the non-breaching party in the position he or she would have been in if the contract was performed without breach. Therefore a party breaking an private agreement (i.e. the one between you and the broadband provider) is treated much differently under the law than a party violating a statute, regulation or ordinance. The former conduct is considered breaching, while the latter is considered illegal.
It is important to use the right terms when discussing this topic. The term “illegal” implies the power of the State is used to prohibit conduct. It does not seem like this is the case when someone share’s their broadband connection. I am interested to know if there are any statutes that prohibit this sharing. In the absence of a statute or regulation, it seems that broadband sharing, at most, is a breach of contract—which still might cost you a lot of money.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article is legal advice. You should not rely on this article in deciding whether to share your Internet connection. If you have questions about whether to share your broadband connection you should consult your contract with your service provider. If that does not resolve the question you should contact an attorney.