Travel and "open" wifi

It’s been quiet here in TechnoLlama for a while after knit-gate and the story about gold spammer executions being picked up by the always excellent Terra Nova. I am now off to Brazil for a conference, and as a reluctant traveller and Internet addict I am always very interested in finding adequate wifi coverage, which is not always easy and rather expensive.

For the last year I have been relying on BT Openzone, which came as part of my home broadband package. However, the free service was discontinued, and it has now been replaced with something called BT Fon. Fon is a really interesting experiment, an international network of users that agree to share their broadband connection with other Fon users. In their own words:

FON is the largest WiFi community in the world. FON is a Community of people making WiFi universal and free. Our vision is WiFi everywhere made possible by the members of the Community, Foneros. We share some of our home Internet connection and get free access to the Community’s FON Spots worldwide!

The idea is ground-breaking, yet amazingly simple when you think about it. Road warriors will be used to picking up all sorts of closed networks when roaming the wireless space. The idea is to let you connect to those wireless networks in exchange for making your own service available to others. This seems to me to be a logical step-up of the sharing open ethic exemplified by tools like Wikipedia, Creative Commons and open source licensing. By sharing your resources you also benefit by being able to connect to a network anywhere in the world.

Those legally inclined will certainly get suspicious right now. What are the legal implications? What are the liabilities involved if someone uses your network to download porn, terrorist manuals, unlicensed copyright works, or boot-leg Rick Astley videos? Is there a chance that sharing your connection will make you vulnerable to attacks? Fon say that the connection is secure, and because all users need to user their login in order to connect, a record will be left somewhere that access to that dodgy site was not yours, but it will identify which username did it.

I have to admit that I really like the idea, it has all of the sharing elements that I like about the participatory web. However, I am sort of sceptical about BT’s reasons for joining the Fon network. Call me cynical, but I am certain that BT realised that revenue from roaming wifi is not what it should be, and that it was partly to blame on people like me who got access as part of a package. Now they can charge me whenever I need to go online on the road and I cannot find a Fonero. Hopefully, the network will become big enough soon enough.

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