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Software Defaults as De Facto Regulation: the Case of the Wireless Internet


Rajiv C. Shah


University of Illinois at Chicago - Department of Communication; Illinois State University

Christian Sandvig


University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Dept. of Communication Studies


Information, Communication, and Society, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 25-46, 2008

Abstract:     
Today's internet presumes that individuals are capable of configuring software to address issues such as spam, security, indecent content, and privacy. This assumption is worrying - common sense and empirical evidence state that not everyone is so interested or so skilled. When regulatory decisions are left to individuals, for the unskilled the default settings are the law. This article relies on evidence from the deployment of wireless routers and finds that defaults act as de facto regulation for the poor and poorly educated.

This paper presents a large sample behavioral study of how people modify their 802.11 ("Wi-Fi") wireless access points from two distinct sources. The first is a secondary analysis of WifiMaps.com, one of the largest online databases of wireless router information. The second is an original wireless survey of portions of three census tracts in Chicago, selected as a diversity sample for contrast in education and income. By constructing lists of known default settings for specific brands and models, we were then able to identify how people changed their default settings.

Our results show that the default settings for wireless access points are powerful. Media reports and instruction manuals have increasingly urged users to change defaults - especially passwords, network names, and encryption settings.

Despite this, only half of all users change any defaults at all on the most popular brand of router. Moreover, we find that when a manufacturer sets a default 96-99% of users follow the suggested behavior, while only 28-57% of users acted to change these same default settings when exhorted to do so by expert sources. Finally, there is also a suggestion that those living in areas with lower incomes and levels of education are less likely to change defaults, although these data are not conclusive. These results show how the authority of software trumps that of advice. Consequently, policymakers must acknowledge and address the power of software to act as de facto regulation.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 38

Keywords: Regulation, Software, Wireless, Defaults, Law, Policy, Internet

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Date posted: February 26, 2007 ; Last revised: March 4, 2008

Suggested Citation

Shah, Rajiv C. and Sandvig, Christian, Software Defaults as De Facto Regulation: the Case of the Wireless Internet. Information, Communication, and Society, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 25-46, 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=964950

Contact Information

Rajiv Shah (Contact Author)
University of Illinois at Chicago - Department of Communication ( email )
Chicago, IL 60612
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.rajivshah.com
Illinois State University ( email )
Normal, IL 61790
United States
Christian Sandvig
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Dept. of Communication Studies ( email )
5370 North Quad
105 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1285
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.niftyc.org/
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