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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.

  1. Since I’m an American, I won’t presume to dwell on this in the domestic context of the UK. I will say I do hope it doesn’t give my Congress and President any stupid ideas, and they do watch our “Cousins'” legislation and court decisions quite closely (and rightly so, since our legal system rests, ultimately, on English Common Law).

    I’ll use examples from the US, since I can legitimately can pick on those in my role as an American citizen.

    A few years ago, it became fashionable to hold gun makers responsible for misuse of their products by robbers, murderers, and the like.

    This is akin to holding operators of a wi-fi system accountable for behavior of its users, something dear to many American lawmakers’ [black] hearts.

    So let’s push onward through the looking glass into pure La-La Land.

    Some wannabe teenage driver is roaring along at 130 mph in a 50 mph zone and crashes, killing innocent people in another vehicle. Let’s sue the automaker. And let’s sue the government for not designing roads to handle cars traveling at ANY speed. And let’s sue whoever planted that oak tree the innocent victims’ car smashed into — you know, the tree that directly caused their deaths.

    Why not? Hold those with NO role in ANY aspect of the accident accountable.

    Heck, let’s say a U.S. soldier commits a war atrocity and is court-martialed and found guilty. Let’s try the area theater’s commanding general, then work our way on up the line to the President. That makes as much sense as anything else I’ve mentioned.

    I’m reminded of the recent conviction of some Google executives in an Italian court, convicted for something they had no role in nor, indeed, any knowledge of until the case arose. I probably wouldn’t mention this case were it not true that Italy is an EU member but the Italian judge reportedly chose to ignore EU regulations in the case, those providing “safe harbor” to companies such as Google.

    For the Cousins’ sake — and, by extension, my own — I do hope that Orwell doesn’t prove to have been terribly prescient.

  2. @Kurt

    Since you wrote about that Italian court vs Google, I’ll try to explain the current Italian legislation about wi-fi hotspots.
    If you share an internet connection through a wi-fi hotspot, you have more obligations than an ISP, because you share a single IP address between users and police officers want to know what each connected user does at any time.

    Therefore you must keep (for 12 months) a huge log of ALL the internet activity (destination IP addresses) of every user that uses your wi-fi hotspot.
    All users must be identifiable, through ID cards (you must keep a local copy), SMS or credit card.
    You also must get an authorization from the police, in order to open a wi-fi hotspot.