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THE WEEKLY GEEKLY ‌ Stealing the Internet

Just plain wrong or just too easy?

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When I was in London last summer, staying with a friend, I had the urge to check my e-mail one afternoon. "Hey, do you have wireless?" I asked her, pulling my laptop out. "No, we don't," she said. "But the guy next door does and he doesn't have it password-protected. Just use his connection."

We've all done it, right? In this case, however, what my friend had neglected to tell me was that the guy next door was actually none other than Ricky Gervais, star of The Office and Extras. When I found out — "This guy's network is called 'Ricky?' Is that the one you mean?" — I was tickled pink. I dined out on the story of stealing Ricky Gervais' wireless internet connection for months!

A recent study by Jupiter Research revealed that 14 percent of wireless network owners have accessed their neighbor's connection (although I'm willing to bet it's at least triple that, and people just aren't admitting it.) Piggybacking onto other peoples' internet access is the oldest trick in the wireless book. I remember driving past Port City Java on Calhoun one summer evening a few years ago and seeing a young couple sitting outside on the steps. The coffee shop was closed, but their heads were bent over a laptop. "Maybe they're checking to see what time it opens again." I said naively to my boyfriend. "Oh, whatever," he said. "They're using the wi-fi connection. They probably don't get the signal in their apartment, but if they come down here and sit right outside, it's a lot stronger."

Simply put: we're all thieves. Back in the day, we stole music from Napster until they made us pay for it. Nowadays, we download TV shows with BitTorrent and sit through the incessant stopping-and-starting, rather than paying a few bucks to get them on iTunes. (Well, I do. Don't you? That's how I watched the whole second season of Grey's Anatomy while I was out of the country.) The internet has turned us into amateur criminals. Would I steal ten bucks from Ricky Gervais if I saw it fall out of his pocket on the street? Of course not. But the man's giving his internet connection away for free? Alright then, I'll take it.

Unsurprisingly, this isn't exactly legal. Or rather, it isn't exactly illegal. The issue, you see, is so new that it's still sort of murky. According to a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, "a broad statement concerning the access of unprotected wireless networks as being always legal or illegal simply can't be made. It's just kind of dicey."

Personally, I think if you don't take a few minutes to set up a password and protect what's rightfully yours, you can't be outraged when people start helping themselves to it. Especially if you're Ricky Gervais, man. I mean, he could just pay someone to do it for him.

Holly Burns (www.nothingbutbonfires.com) never caught a glimpse of Mr. Gervais, though she did take a photo of the garbage he put out in front of his door. One day she will sell it on eBay.

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