Open Wi-Fi 'outlawed' by Digital Economy Bill

Open Wi-Fi 'outlawed' by Digital Economy Bill

Summary: Universities, libraries and small businesses operating open Wi-Fi networks will face the same penalties for illicit downloading as ordinary users


The government will not exempt universities, libraries and small businesses providing open Wi-Fi services from its Digital Economy Bill copyright crackdown, according to official advice released earlier this week.

This would leave many organisations open to the same penalties for copyright infringement as individual subscribers, potentially including disconnection from the internet, leading legal experts to say it will become impossible for small businesses and the like to offer Wi-Fi access.

Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at Sheffield University, told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the scenario described by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in an explanatory document would effectively "outlaw open Wi-Fi for small businesses", and would leave libraries and universities in an uncertain position.

"This is going to be a very unfortunate measure for small businesses, particularly in a recession, many of whom are using open free Wi-Fi very effectively as a way to get the punters in," Edwards said.

"Even if they password protect, they then have two options — to pay someone like The Cloud to manage it for them, or take responsibility themselves for becoming an ISP effectively, and keep records for everyone they assign connections to, which is an impossible burden for a small café."

In the explanatory document, Lord Young, a minister at BIS, described common classes of public Wi-Fi access, and explained that none of them could be protected. Libraries, he said, could not be exempted because "this would send entirely the wrong signal and could lead to 'fake' organisations being set up, claiming an exemption and becoming a hub for copyright infringement".

Universities cannot be exempted, Young said, because some universities already have stringent anti-file-sharing rules for their networks, and "it does not seem sensible to force those universities who already have a system providing very effective action against copyright infringement to abandon it and replace it with an alternative".

Subscriber vs IP
Young added that universities will need to figure out for themselves whether they qualify as an ISP or a subscriber. This is a distinction that carries very different implications under the terms of the bill, which would establish possible account suspension as a sanction against subscribers who repeatedly break copyright law, and force ISPs to store user data and hand it over to rights holders when ordered to do so.

Businesses providing open Wi-Fi networks to customers and clients will also need to decide whether they are ISPs or subscribers, "depending on the type of service and the nature of their relationship with their consumers...although it appears unlikely that few other than possibly the large hotel chains or conference centres might be ISPs", Young said.

Young added that free or 'coffee shop' access tends to be too low-bandwidth to support file-sharing and, under the bill, "such a service is more likely to receive notification letters as a subscriber than as an ISP". He recommended that they secure their connections and install privacy controls, to "reduce the possibility of infringement with any cases on appeal being considered on their merits".

The BIS minister also noted that there was scope in the bill's text — currently being amended in the House of Lords — "to reflect the position of libraries, universities or Wi-Fi providers", perhaps by letting such organisations have different sets of thresholds that would trigger notification letters from rights holders.

Read this

How is Digital Britain really doing?

Despite recent setbacks, there are still reasons to be cheerful about broadband in the UK, says Malcolm Corbett

Read more

"This would be a matter for the code and we would urge the relevant representative bodies to consider now how best to engage in the [Digital Economy Bill] code development process," he added.

The bill defines an 'internet access service' as an electronic communications service that "is provided to a subscriber, consists entirely or mainly of the provision of access to the internet, and includes the allocation of an IP address or IP addresses to the subscriber to enable that access".

An ISP is defined as a person who provides an internet access service, and a subscriber is defined as a person who "receives the service under an agreement between the person and the provider of the service, and does not receive it as a communications provider".

Referring to BIS's comments about the low bandwidth of coffee-shop connections, Lilian Edwards suggested it was "not correct to draft laws hoping they are difficult to break".

Edwards also pointed out that BIS's guidance for universities shows the government admitting "they don't know themselves how universities fit into the Digital Economy Bill".

"[Universities] don't know if they're subscribers, ISPs or neither," Edwards said. "If the government is not clear, how on earth are the universities supposed to respond? This seems almost unprecedented to me, for a government document."

Topics: Broadband, Networking

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Grrrr

    Why are these minority copyright holders ruining it for for billions of others.
    It seems everywhere in modern life minorities rule.
    Copyright is not god given but parliament given & that's what needs to change first, to address this unequal balance of power.
    Copyright holders do NOT own the Internet but are being allowed so to do.
  • Winger Winger oh dear you cant wash your hands of responsibility anymore

    Look you have all been making money by allowing thieving to be done on your networks and you don't care because it pulls in the punters for you but really your piggy backing on others rights to make a profit and just want no responsibility to what service you provide preferring to turn a blind eye all you want is no strings the profits,

    Wake up if you want to supply a service then you have to run it properly and not allow it to be used illegally and then you will know if its a real business of just a way to make money from other peoples loss.

    And its not outlawed its actually being made legal for those who respect a legal business model
    Mark Ryder
  • Go Away

    Mark Ryder the copyright holders association shill. Please just go away. Your point is invalid, you sound like a fascist.

    How can the pos for the wifi be held responsible for what the people inside it do, I bet your one of these people who think that pubs should also be charged because people can't handle their drink, how about laws which actually allow people self control.

    Many years of Labour nanny state have removed the need for self control and put the onus on whoever decides to sell/distribute anything. This is not 1935 Germany and the police are not a gestapo organisation, here to enforce your unworkable laws.

    I would also like to hear your idea on how this could be run "with a legal business model". If your trying to say you would block torrent traffic or other illegal traffic then your wrong as their are more than a few workarounds.

    People like you (I really don't know why you choose to protect copyright holders) and ip copyholders themselves are a stifle for innovation, thank goodness theres still people like the first poster around because if it was only your protection racket buddies the world would be heading for a very slow period of innovation.
  • But Sion Simon said...

    I don't understand. Sion Simon MP assured me that it's "still possible to have open networks whose settings protect the host from unlawful activity on the network":

    while acknowledging that some torrent activities are legal:
  • Other peoples' loss - joking surely

    Ah so you believe householders & local councils owning roads should be taken to court for allowing thieving to take place on such. What about car manufacturers having to vet all customers in case they use 'getaway cars.'
    I guess not, you'd close the lot!

    Copyright should involve responsibility to publish.

    I've tried buying various items which the copyright holders refuse to sell. And yet cry 'loss' when downloaded, what loss?

    In case you wonder I have very many copyrights which I've freely assigned once paid for the work.
    I'm not idly sitting back living on past glory.
    I've only once taken a company to court & won or at least they gave in just before the case, for using my work, which they commissioned, without paying.
  • But Sion Simon said...

    I don't understand. Sion Simon MP assured me that it's "still possible to have open networks whose settings protect the host from unlawful activity on the network" (Twitter status 5951557332) while acknowledging that some torrent activities are legal (Twitter status 5951733756).

    (I previously posted this comment with Twitter URLs, but they've been blocked by ZDNet)
  • and you trust mp's?

    recent history says otherwise.
  • Swill and rubbish Mark

    The world is full of people wanting to protect their copyright while not having to do any work to achieve that. I really like the poster below who makes the mighty fine analogy with roads, because that is bang on the money. "A thief moved stolen property along a road that you own, why didn't you search his car or get his registration number?" It's just a ridiculous concept.

    Work on laws that let people shut down foreign servers who host illegal content. Just because that is blummin' hard does not mean that people should be allowed to pursue the soft option of blaming people in this country just because illegal happenings passed through their network.

    Where will it stop? If I get an email from the son of the Foreign Minister for Nigeria wanting my help to move several million dollars out of his country, can I sue my email provider for delivering the email, if I lose money to the con-men?
  • Just another attack on civil libity

    How can an organisation just supplying access be guilty of infringing IP? Surely only the person doing the infringing can be guilty. It is like saying BT is guilty for every crime one of it's land lines is used to organise.
  • This doesn't mean you

    Aaah that would be one of those classic cases of: "Ahh, but this law doesn't apply to you. I know the words cover you in their scope, but don't worry, that's not what it is for. It'll never be used that way."

    The law covers what the words of the law say it covers. End of. Any MP who tries to say that it will never be applied in some benign case, is either incompetent or lazy. They either know full well that the law is, as usual these days, drafted in an extremely broad and sloppy manner and can't be bothered to get it fixed; or they really think that what they say to someone has even the merest hint of an effect on how it will be used once it is on the statute books.

    Recent history is littered with such promises and subsequent stories about how that law has been applied entirely out of context from it's original intent once down in stone.

    In one case, the *first *time the law was used in the South East of England was to do something that several MPs had promised on their lives would never happen.

    If your MP says something like this, he is no longer worthy of your trust or respect.
    Andrew Meredith
  • Re: This doesn't mean you

    Oh dear Andrew, you have slipped to No. 72 and your comments are always so pithy and accurate.

    In the Sun last Saturday there was an article about the Dad who took his son to the mall and gave him a ride on a kiddy's train. Like any proud father (or any other proud relation) he went to take photo of his son. First comes the security guard, then the mall manager and finally the police. He couldn't 'prove it was his son', so it wasn't alright to take a photo (he might be a paedo) but he was still able to leave with his son after a heated confrontation.

    Guess who won't go back to that mall.
    The Former Moley
  • Another great technology ruined

    The internet is supposed to be open and free yet due to people (mainly media companies) complaining about copyright infringement our government is messing everything up for everybody (whats new)!

    I have not yet had one response back from media companies as to why they cannot install their own copyright protection at object level. E.g. using MS RMS you can now protect word documents etc. however, they are distributed...why can't media companies and the like incorporate this type of protection...I say its greed and a business model thats too out-dated for todays society.

    Too bad the government are weak and do things for big companies (who probably donate to them) instead of looking after the tax payers.
  • This is no argument

    Mark makes no valid point what so ever. Why don't companies apply suitable protection to things they release (knowing full well the world we live in)?

    Copyright holders that don't apply protection are asking for trouble and shouldn't be allowed to complain unless they are implementing suitable safeguards in the first place.

    Not applying protection is like driving your car into a rough neighbourhood and leaving it with all doors open, the keys in the ignition and the engine running...and then being suprised when it gets stolen.

    If you loose your credit card you have to prove that you weren't an idiot with regards protecting your pin etc.

    Who is naive enough to release something onto the web etc. and not include protection!!! Oh yes thats right...copyright holders.

    Recent Government research has shown that practically all violent criminals, trrrrrsts, paedophiles, drug pushers and even MPs, were aided in their criminal activities by the use of clothes. It is therefore the opinion of this government that in order to hamper the efforts of these people that the use of clothes should outlawed. If anyone has an issue with this, just bear in mind that if only one child is saved from harm, it will have been worth it and if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.
    Andrew Meredith
  • replying to my own post because all the other reply's were lame..

    Mark Ryder
  • Lets not forget about what happened in Canada..

    Where most of these large company's where all found to be infringing on other's copy rights, one rule for them another for the rest of us, the only reason why government ministers are carry this crap forward is plain and simple because they have being bought.
  • fonero

    Fonero and BT supply an open wifi access router to plug into your broadband called FON. EVERYONE should obtain one ASAP. Let them then sue 7-8 million people. Ridiculous laws can be brought down. History is full of inspiration.
    Also these laws are so out of kilter with modern technology we now see freeview boxes with usb recorders in Tesco for instance. Attacking You Tube is a nonsense as you can download music vids from other sources now. These people are puting an ignorant finger in the hole in the dyke and must surely be overwhelmed.. very similar overractions occurred with photocopying in where was that article on ssh tunneling and overseas vpn,s....
    now Italy and China showed that filtering out specific sites on the web is impossible and Sweden and Netherlands have found it impossible to extinguish a modus operandi that is socially acceptable. stable door is well open in this scenario.
  • So, Mark Ryder, you think that arguments about cars and clothes are silly...

    let's stick to communications, shall we.

    If I post copied DVDs to my friends, would you expect Royal Mail to be prosecuted for transporting the stolen copyrighted material to their homes?

    If I set up a telephone conference call and invited a group of 10 friends to dial in, then proceeded to play Robbie William's "angels", would you expect British Telecom to be prosecuted for carrying the voice signal to each of their homes?

    This legislation is a bleak and terrible thing which wide reaching implications for our civil rights and freedoms... and bimbo cheerleaders like you have helped it all along. You are helping to kill freedom in this country. happy yet?
  • It's a bit like removing the burglar alarm on my house because I EXPECT the police to stop anyone from unlawfully entering because it it their responsibility. Mmm....SIMPLE!
  • Mark - it is up to the music industry to put their own security measures in place, NOT the ISP's - exactly the same reason I have a burglar alarm on my house. I don't hold the police responsible should someone break in. Surely you can see the logic here? Amanda, Ormskirk