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Please no warchalking legislation, it won't do any of us any good

Posted on 01/10/2002 at 08:30

Warchalking - marking where WiFi networks can be publicly picked up - is showing disturbing signs of becoming the latest Trojan Horse by which ill thought-out legislation becomes law.

God only knows what absurd, cart-before-horse solutions will be proposed. Or which of them will be championed by uninformed politicians. But you can rest assured that they are coming, that big business will back them (as long as they don't cost money), that they will be excessive and that civil rights campaigners will find at least 20 ways in which they can be abused by the authorities.

In the past fortnight, warchalking has been called illegal, compared to common theft, been accused of damaging businesses and of encouraging hacking, and generally scapegoated for all that's wrong in the world. In fact, blink and you could easily confuse it with those other deadly sins: MP3 file-swapping and chatroom conversations.

The only difference so far is that warchalking "can encourage malicious hackers" (BT), "could steal enough bandwidth to reduce the performance of the company's applications" (Nokia), and "could potentially provide access to commercially sensitive data" (CBI). Warchalkers themselves "could use a network as a proxy to despatch millions of unwanted email messages with no danger of being traced" (CBI) and "could harm businesses financially and operationally".

These "cans" and "coulds" will soon turn into "wills" and then we are likely to see the same kind of over-the-top and damaging legislation that has stemmed from other Internet applications.

In the US, a law intended to protect artists' copyright allows for sanctioned corporate hacking of individual's home computers. Incredible but true. In the UK, the paedophile frenzy looks set to introduce a law in which people are found guilty before they have even committed a crime.

Those vigorously opposing these laws are wrong in their assertion that it is a concerted effort by the authorities to build a police state, and those that vigorously support the laws are deluding themselves if they think people can be made to follow them. What we can expect is five to ten years of argument and legal wrangling until a more intelligent solution is found. Something that could be achieved earlier if a little forethought was shown.

Rushed law is bad law. But the Internet enables practices to spread like wildfire in just a few months. Millions of people are downloading MP3s without paying for copyright, so we must have a law as soon as possible stopping them. Three children have died already from people they met on the Internet, so we must have a law before another child is lost.

Subsequently the laws are drawn up, decided upon and passed before anyone has had a chance to take a more reasoned look at the situation. Certainly long before it impinges on society.

While this pre-emptive approach to law is reminiscent of both IT companies' approach to business and the boundless innovation that the Internet has provided, it has invariably created binding statutes from a poorly defined middle ground.

WiFi is, fortunately, a very different animal to the two examples above, but there is a risk its wider acceptance will be hampered by companies and technophiles playing up to their accepted roles - reacting against one another rather than coming to an understanding over how to get the most out of it.

Like Edwina Currie, embracing the grey man in the middle can be ultimately more satisfying that anyone would dare imagine.

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