Digital Economy Bill Threatens Public Wi-Fi Hotspots

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Fears are growing that Wi-Fi access in the UK could be under threat, from sanctions included in the Digital Economy Bill

As if the Digital Economy Bill were not controversial enough, the British government has now admitted that owners of open access Wi-Fi hotspots could be at risk of huge liability fines.

One of the most controversial aspects of the government’s Digital Economy Bill is its attempt to combat online piracy, which will see persistent file-sharers cut-off from the Internet. But the Bill has faced persistent criticism from many sectors, and the furore is set to increase with the news that the government has admitted in its official advice, released last week, that it will not exempt universities, libraries, and small businesses that provide open Wi-Fi services from the Bill’s copyright crackdown.

By failing to exempt universities, libraries, and small businesses, such as a coffee shop that offers a free Wi-Fi hotspot, it means that these organisations risk the same penalties for copyright infringement as individual subscribers.

Effectively the business would be held responsible for the actions of customers that use its networks, even if the hotspot is password-protected. This could potentially mean that a business or a university might be disconnected from the Internet if casual users there infringe copyright. Many legal experts believe that this will make it impossible for small businesses to offer free Wi-Fi access. There is also concern that local communities that offer public Wi-Fi networks would be affected.

“We’re aware and very concerned about the potential impact of the Digital Economy Bill on our own and our customers’ businesses,” a BT spokesperson told eWEEK Europe UK. “We believe abuse of copyright is wrong, but we strongly believe that there is a lack of clarity in the Bill as to where responsibility lies for dealing with alleged copyright infringements, and the implications of the current proposals on a variety of businesses and activities have not been properly thought through.”

“It is clearly unfair that any site offering Wi-Fi, and any of their customers enjoying the service, should lose their access because of accusations against individual users,” said BT. “Under the current proposals, all businesses including Wi-Fi providers, could receive copyright infringement notices if copyright owners have reason to believe that Wi-Fi IP addresses are implicated in copyright infringement.”

“This means that we and our business customers may potentially be responsible for actively deterring customers from copyright infringing activities,” BT added. “This might include changes to our business terms and conditions of use, but down the line, Wi-Fi services may become subject to technical measures, e.g. disconnection, suspension and bandwidth throttling.”

The BT spokesperson said that along with others in the industry, it is monitoring developments in Parliament as the draft Bill is proceeding through its various stages. “We are lobbying for changes to the proposals for technical measures,” said BT.

Both BT and TalkTalk have opposed the copyright clamp-down in the bill, and other criticism has come from the digital rights campaigning organisation, the Open Rights Group, which hit out against the latest revelations. “Quietly, through the backdoor, allowing the use of legitimate technology has effectively been criminalised … [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] and Mandelson are relying on very narrow, quickly thought-up, probably inaccurate technical advice,” it wrote on its blog.

“This is unreasonable and incredibly bureaucratic. This Bill is going to make life very difficult for a very wide range of users – the government’s notes admit as much,” it added.

It urged people to write to their MPs and local papers. However it did offer one ray of hope in that organisations would have a right to appeal if they face the ultimate sanction.

Author: Tom Jowitt
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