The increasing trend of naming Wi-Fi networks to promote a website or physical location, such as a shop, opens up network owners to the risk of libel actions — just as if they were putting out a newsletter or publishing a website.
Last week it emerged that around one percent of Wi-Fi networks in London are being named, not only to identify them as a way to get online — indeed, some are closed off to public use, requiring a password — but for publicity purposes. The trend is slightly more advanced in other parts of Europe.
A typical example might be a coffee shop on a busy city road. A café which has been in the area for decades might be fighting back against a rival that has recently moved in. It is providing free Wi-Fi access — after all, all its competitors are also into wireless.
But, according to legal experts, it must be careful how it promotes itself. A simple "This coffee is the best" carries no risk — it's a simple marketing message over a new channel. However, a statement such as "[Rival café X's] coffee will make you ill" does carry risks.
Ashley Hurst, associate in the media litigation department at law firm Olswang, said: "A defamatory statement may be libellous if it is made to a third party and refers to a particular individual or company."
Anyone taking legal action would need to trace those who own the network, which can be done in a number of ways, and prove a number of people — perhaps as few as half a dozen — had read the message and that message had libelled them.
Hurst added that the simple act of naming a public Wi-Fi network — a decision often not given much thought — could potentially open up the network owner to other complaints, such as "passing off" and trademark infringement, depending on the wording.