Hang out in airports, coffee shops, or other laptop-friendly spots for a while, and you’ll find “Free Public Wi-Fi.” It never gets you through to the actual web, because it’s actually a weird Windows XP quirk—one you shouldn’t connect to.
Image via Defensive Computing/CNET News.
NPR explains that “Free Public WiFi” was never free, and never public, and not actually a Wi-Fi service. It likely started as a joke or prank, but then spread around the world because of a quirk in pre-SP 3 versions of Windows XP:
When a computer running an older version of XP can’t find any of its “favorite” wireless networks, it will automatically create an ad hoc network with the same name as the last one it connected to -– in this case, “Free Public WiFi.” Other computers within range of that new ad hoc network can see it, luring other users to connect. And who can resist the word “free?”
Most of the time, you’re probably okay if you accidentally hit “Connect” on Free Public WiFi, as you’re just trying to connect to a computer that’s unwittingly rebroadcasting its own inability to connect. But there could be occasion for someone with evil deeds in their heart to allow the connection and grab logins or other data from your connection, so try and block your system from ever connecting to “Free Public WiFi” in your network settings. In most cases, the actually free Wi-Fi will come with a more legit-sounding name, like AT&T Wifi or something akin.