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Bootlegging Wireless Access

Orin Kerr serves up this interesting post about a Michigan guy who was prosecuted for using a coffee shop's wireless access without ever entering the coffee shop. As Kerr describes:

Each day around lunch time, Sam Peterson would drive to the Union Street Cafe, park his car and--without actually entering the coffee shop--check his e-mail and surf the Net. His ritual raised the suspicions of Police Chief Andrew Milanowski, who approached him and asked what he was doing. Peterson, probably not realizing that his actions constituted a crime, freely admitted what he was doing.

Milanowski eventually swore out a warrant for Peterson's arrest, even though the coffee shop owner didn't even realize that accessing the coffee shop network without going inside was illegal. Eventually, Peterson was charged with theft under a computer crime statute and given a $400 fine and 40 hours of community service (A more reasonable penalty, it seems, would have been to simply reimburse the coffee shop for the cost of a cup of java for each day that Peterson used the wireless as a noncustomer.).

Kerr wonders whether Peterson actually committed a crime under Michigan's statute prohibited "unauthorized use" of a computer network. Among other things, Kerr argues that Peterson's use was not unauthorized because the coffee shop made the network available to anyone. He writes:

What's the rule — no hopping on wifi from a coffee shop unless you enter the shop? Unless you actually buy something? What if you're outside waiting for a friend to join you for a latte, but you haven't gone in yet? Where do such rules come from, and what notice does a defendant have before being held criminally liable? I've written before about how unauthorized access statutes threaten to punish an incredible amount of conduct online, and this seems like the latest evidence in support of the point.

For now, if you're waiting outside a coffee shop in Michigan, keep your wireless turned off until you enter the store!

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on May 23, 2007 at 08:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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