Small-business owners that allow customers to access their internet connection should not be penalised for unlawful downloads made by those customers, the Federation of Small Businesses has said.
On Tuesday, the FSB told ZDNet UK it was calling on the government to amend the Digital Economy Bill — a major part of which involves a massive copyright crackdown — to make sure "small-business owners are not punished for their customers' wrongdoing".
The bill, which is being scrutinised by the House of Lords prior to being sent through to the Commons for further inspection, sets out a new enforcement regime for combatting unlawful downloads of copyrighted material. Under the terms of the bill, potential sanctions include account suspension and other technical measures, such as bandwidth throttling.
"The Federation of Small Businesses is concerned that the focus in the Digital Economy Bill on illegal file-sharing on communal computers, such as those in internet cafés, will penalise small businesses simply for providing internet access," said FSB national chairman John Wright.
"If a customer uses the internet on a café's subscription and downloads illegal files, it is the owner of that café who will get penalised. Any legislation that puts small firms in this position is wholly unfair."
Wright added that amending the proposed legislation to protect small-business owners who share their internet connection would help small firms whose business is reliant on such sharing to stay viable.
At the end of February, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said universities, libraries and businesses that provide open Wi-Fi access would not be exempt from the bill's provisions. This means that unless the providers assume the complex responsibilities of an ISP, they will be treated as a subscriber and made liable for downloads of copyrighted material over their connection.
At the time, Sheffield University internet law professor Lilian Edwards told ZDNet UK that the bill would effectively "outlaw open Wi-Fi for small businesses", and would leave universities and libraries in an uncertain position.
Toby Bainton, the secretary of the Society of College, National and University Libraries, subsequently told the BBC it was "very concerned" about the implications of the bill, and wanted further clarification from the government.
BIS said the bill covers any internet connection — both public and private.
"We recognise the importance of public [internet access] in ensuring that as wide a cross-section of society as possible benefits from being online, and welcome the action many organisations such as libraries and universities have already taken to prevent unlawful activity on their networks," a BIS spokesperson said.
"We would encourage any public [internet access] provider to take steps to prevent widespread infringement and still allow people to enjoy online access. Any issues affecting individual and group public [internet access] providers will be considered in the industry code, which will be drawn up with approval by Ofcom, after the bill receives Royal Assent."