The piracy pitfalls of offering public Wi-Fi

Could businesses offering a public Wi-Fi service find themselves on the wrong side of the Digital Economy Act? Simon Brew takes a look…

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Notwithstanding the fact that an unsecured wireless network brings with it a host of other issues, the legal position is an unclear one. There have been issues of this ilk before. A UK pub owner had to pay a fine for copyright infringement back in 2009 when its Wi-Fi service was abused, and the new legislation does little to dampen concerns. Since 2009, there hasn't been a host of further cases, but neither has there been anything to give people concrete facts one way or the other.

The closest we've had of late is Ofcom's recent publication of its draft outline policy for its three strikes approach. This is just a little bit softer in practice than it was first feared (perhaps a consequence of the public backlash and ongoing delays) and it does put a lot of obstacles in the way for a copyright holder who wants to track down a person's name and address. Once the three strikes are up, anyone wanting to track down an offender will get only anonymous details, and then will have to apply to the ISPs themselves to get fleshed out information. This involves lawyers at an expense, and of course the hassle. Each of those are deterrents in their own way.

A large firm be seen to be coming down hard on an Internet caf is unlikely to be popular with the public.

And yet the introduction of the new process inevitably means it will be used. Still, there's the problem that the letter of the law is grey on this one, and may well require and get a test case, should anyone want to find out a definitive answer. There is still the chance, therefore, that a large organisation will end up suing a small business such as a pub or internet cafe.

Reality

What's more likely though is that most copyright holders are likely to ignore instances of this ilk. While there's a case that a legal battle may well be won, there's a strong risk that it'll come at the expense of a public relations one. A large firm be seen to be coming down hard on an Internet caf is unlikely to be popular with the public.

That said, there are some common sense precautions that anyone offering any kind of public Wi-Fi service could and should be looking to follow. After all, there's plenty of technology available to put together some kind of record as to what users were using a system, when. A simple log-in mechanic, even if the Wi-Fi service is free, is a good idea. Even having a wireless password that needs to be obtained from a member of staff.

Furthermore, it makes sense to put a block on certain sites. Many ISPs are already looking at restricting UK access to sites such as The Pirate Bay, and again, it's not too tricky a job to remove access to torrent services. To be seen to have made some effort is likely to reflect well, should legal action be pursued.

It's slightly odd that clarification is still being required, especially given the scrutiny that the Digital Economy Act has gone through in recent times (although the haste in which it was hurried onto the statute books has done it few favours). The fact public Wi-Fi providers need to be concerned about this is perhaps a sign of the times, but it's also a disappointing position, given that many are simply looking to provide a helpful public service. That there's the chance they may end up on the end of scary lawyer's letters for doing so is perhaps something that should be addressed well in advance of March 2014

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