Wi-Fi network owners in Germany look set to get an easier legal ride when their WLANs are used by criminals.
Owners of wireless networks in Germany are currently in a dangerous situation if they don't protect password-protect their WLANs, or find their security has been cracked. If a drive-by hacker uses an open or weakly protected Wi-Fi to commit a crime, such as downloading child pornography or pirated content, it's not only the hacker who can face legal action but the entirely innocent WLAN owner too.
Under current German law, the Wi-Fi network owner could be held liable as an accessory to the crime and face the same prison term or fine as the individual who committed the offence.
The city parliaments in Berlin and Hamburg now want to improve the legal protection for Wi-Fi network owners — including small businesses such as hotels or restaurants as well as individuals — that face the prospect of having to pay damages if their networks are compromised. The parliaments want to cap both the sentences and level of fines that a WLAN owner could be liable for if a criminal uses their network.
Some German lawyers specialise in this field (a practice known as Abmahnung in German law), demanding huge sums of money on behalf of rights holders if they find copyright infringements have been made over a free Wi-Fi network.
The city of Berlin thinks that the amount of damages requested in such cases is inappropriately high and may endanger the financial existence of citizens or owners of small firms.
A new legal initiative will be put before the Bundesrat (the assembly of German states, comparable to the US Senate), asking it to consider how to limit WLAN owners' liability. If the initiative is approved, the Bundesrat will ask the German federal government to pass a law bolstering the protection for Wi-Fi network owners.
The mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, said: "We want to help to improve universal internet coverage with our initiative. Improved legal security is also important to support the building-up of information infrastructure in the city of Berlin."