Looking for a snapshot of how the war against terrorism is hurting the Internet? Check out the letter that ran in the Circuits section of today’s New York Times.

To the Editor:

”Where Good Wi-Fi Makes Good Neighbors” (Oct. 21) did not take into account two serious concerns to private companies that provide the service, as well as to the public.

While the article pointed out the loss of privacy that occurs when an Internet portal is shared among neighbors as well as the loss of bandwidth, it did not discuss two other critical factors: security and the violation of an Internet service provider’s user agreement.

The article neglected to note that law enforcement agencies will ultimately deem the account holder responsible for any illegal activity that may occur from a hot-spot provider’s open Internet connection. Personal and national security can be jeopardized when unidentified users are allowed access to the Internet through an open network.

While it may be neighborly to share an Internet connection on, for example, NYCwireless.net, such hot spots may be susceptible to several vulnerabilities, including the transmission of child pornography, spam, computer viruses, credit card fraud and network hacking, and can facilitate a criminal or terrorist communication network. These vulnerabilities outweigh the seemingly benign intentions of an open, anonymous and unsecured wireless network.

The article did not discuss the legal ramifications of shared Internet networks. Operators of Internet hot spots may be liable for civil damages as well as potential criminal liability in cases where the service providers prohibit redistribution of the Internet connection. Most I.S.P. user agreements prohibit the unauthorized retransmission of Internet service, a provision agreed to by the customer at activation.

Preventing criminal misuse and protecting personal, community and national security are paramount considerations when examining the pros and cons of hot-spot communities.

Harriet Novet

pect this kind of alarmism from the likes of Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft. But when corporate ISPs start hiding behind the rhetoric of the war on terror, it’s time for us all to worry.

After all, Time Warner is hardly a disinterested party when it comes to people sharing their wi-fi connections. As a major provider of high-speed Internet service, Time Warner is indirectly footing the bill for all that freely-shared bandwidth.

And as a major content producer (think: movies, music, t.v. shows — you know, all that fun stuff people can download via BitTorrent if they’re not being carefully monitored) Time Warner also has a major interest in ensuring accountability for the flow of information online.

Let people connect to the Internet ubiquitously, anonymously, and even freely, and how can Time Warner respond to to court orders asking it to disclose the identity of intellectual property pirates? More crucially, how can Time Warner go after pirates itself?

I have no problem with Time Warner objecting to wi-fi sharing on these grounds. Personally, I come down on the side of access over intellectual property protection. And I’d rather see Time Warner using its networks to enable ubiquitous wi-fi, instead of blocking it.

But if Time Warner wants to object to spontaneous wi-fi sharing from its vantage point as an ISP and content provider, fair enough. There are real issues, costs and trade-offs here, worthy of a real debate.

Hiding behind hot-buttons like terrorism and child ponography precludes that debate. It makes people think that the flow of information is inimical to our public safety, when it is actually our very best bet for protecting ourselves, our families and our communities.