The Jewish Ethicist: Piggyback or Just Piggy?
Can I tap in to a neighbor's wireless internet service?
Q.My neighbor has an unlimited-use wireless internet subscription. Is it okay for me to double up?
A. Doubling up on wireless internet, often called "piggy-backing," has become a common practice as high-speed connections have gone from being a luxury to a near -- but dear -- necessity for many students and working people.
A few service providers explicitly allow this practice; some even allow the subscriber to "sublet" and charge others for the use of his line. Of course if the service provider permits piggybacking there is no possible objection.
At the other extreme, some people piggyback without permission. Here again there is no real ethical dilemma; the service belongs to the subscriber and no one else has a right to take advantage of it without his permission. Subscribers have good reason to object to piggybacking, even though they pay for unlimited use. In particular, piggy-backing can lead to security breaches for the subscriber, or to service interruption or even litigation if the hitchhiker does something which seems improper.
The real ethical question arises when a legitimate subscriber who has paid for a household subscription agrees to allow a neighbor to tap in. (The same applies to someone who is not a neighbor, but the way the wireless system is set up usually only neighbors can access the signal.) Here the reasoning is: the subscriber paid for unlimited use; since he is allowed to take as much as he wants, why can't he give it to anyone he wants?
The problem with this reasoning is that the service provider charges a certain price for unlimited access based on the knowledge that the average subscriber uses a certain amount of bandwidth (amount of wireless information). It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet; a person is allowed to eat as much as he wants, but if diners were allowed to "piggy-back" on a single meal then the restaurant would find it pretty hard to break even.
Jewish law presents an interesting parallel to the "piggy-backing" scenario: renting an apartment. Someone who rents an apartment is allowed "unlimited use": even if his household grows, all household members are allowed to stay there. What if he wants to let other tenants live with him, or sublet?
Maimonides infers that the owner can object if the number of residents is greater than it originally was. Additional tenants don't cause a huge amount of additional wear and tear on an apartment, but their presence is noticeable and the owner may fairly veto their presence or demand an adjustment. 1
Of course it is impermissible to "squat" in the apartment without the tenant's permission, even if he is unlikely to notice. 2
By the same token, the internet subscriber can use the service as much as he wants, but he can't bring others into the deal if the service provider objects.
However, we should note that a tenant is certainly allowed to invite guests over for limited periods. It seems to me that if the service contract doesn't explicitly forbid this, it should be permissible to allow a neighbor use of the service on a friendly basis for specific and limited periods -- just as a person invites guests over in response to particular conditions, but doesn't usually open his house to friends to sleep over whenever they like. An example would be a friend who wants to take advantage of the subscription for a few hours or days to finish an important project, or while the subscriber is out of town for a short period. After all, a person would customarily allow a guest in his house on these same conditions. (1)
SOURCES: (1) Rambam Shechenim 5:9 and commentaries; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 154:2. (2) See Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 363:6 and Beur HaGra 16.
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