Digital Economy law will shut down community networks

By protecting sectional business interests, the government will have shot itself in the digital-inclusion foot, says Malcolm Corbett
Written by Malcolm Corbett, Contributor

In protecting narrow business interests, the anti-piracy provisions in the Digital Economy legislation will end up closing down community networks, says Malcolm Corbett.

Normally I write about the need to speed up the UK's shift to next-generation broadband. This time it's different. It's personal.

James Stevens is well known in the world of community wireless as a proponent of very cheap or free access to the internet. He has been building free wireless networks for years and I helped establish one in Deptford in south-east London.

His approach is to eschew bureaucracy and instead encourage local businesses to get involved by using their own broadband connections to offer free Wi-Fi access. The Open Wireless Network (OWN) in Deptford has 50 nodes of this type, serving free internet access to 400 people per day and shifting 100GB of data.

Intellectual property rights
As the promoter and organiser of this activity, Stevens has numerous broadband accounts. Earlier this month he received a letter from a firm claiming to specialise in helping intellectual property rights holders enforce their rights.

The letter alleged that one of his accounts had been involved in copyright infringement of an adult movie eight months ago and demanded that he pay £495 in compensation. I make no moral judgement about these movies, but imagine your reaction if such a letter landed on your doormat.

Leaving aside the validity of the claim, Stevens is certainly worried about the impact on the local community network. If local cafés providing free Wi-Fi start getting letters such as this, their most likely response will be to close the node. Who could blame them?

Like many others, Stevens is also concerned that the Digital Economy legislation will make matters worse. It seems that many of us have been sleepwalking into a trap set by those trying to defend a fundamentally broken business model. The anti-piracy provisions of the legislation mean that letters will be coming from ISPs — perhaps in addition to those from rights holders.

Scant comfort
The guidance offered by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills offers scant comfort. In its document Online Infringement of Copyright: Libraries, Universities and Wi-Fi Providers, the section on Wi-Fi providers — such as the OWN network — says: "Depending on the type of service and the nature of their relationship with their consumers, a Wi-Fi provider may be an ISP or a subscriber. In some circumstances they might be regarded as a communications provider; if so they would need to comply with the General Conditions set out under the Communications Act 2003." Great, that's clear then.

The guidance goes on to say: "The type of free or 'coffee shop' access is a basic bandwidth service which offers users access to email and web browsing. It is seems unlikely that the type of free broadband service currently available would be sufficient to support any file-sharing or could be used for significant copyright infringement. Under our proposals such a service is more likely to receive notification letters as a subscriber than as an ISP."

I am none the wiser, except in the OWN case the guidance is fundamentally wrong...

...about bandwidth. Given the London location, many of the connections in the Wi-Fi network are of the up-to-24Mbs/2Mbps variety.

The advice suggests that small Wi-Fi providers should register their users, preventing "transient access and making it easier to police the network through social pressure", and they should take steps such as "blocking any software or application downloads on to fixed computer desktops" or "installing firewalls that do not allow access to a number of sites, such as those containing Flash technology" or "filters to block various sites".

Forgive me for saying this, but in the case of a network seeking to promote digital inclusion by offering free internet access, this is arrant nonsense. Here's why: many users of such networks are transient almost by definition. The only way a network like OWN can operate is by keeping costs and bureaucracy to an absolute minimum.

Piracy provisions
The more barriers you put in front of node operators, the less likely they are to continue to offer the service. The net effect of the piracy provisions in the Digital Economy legislation and these guidelines will be to close down networks such as OWN. In consequence, by protecting the old, analogue business model of one sectional business interest — rather than encouraging them to find new business models that are emerging — the government will have shot itself in the digital-inclusion foot.

According to Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has opposed the copyright enforcement elements of the bill, 20,000 "extremely upset" people had emailed their MPs to complain about the bill.

Aside from concerns about the threat of disconnection for families, cheap or free, widely-available internet access encourages digital inclusion. This is far too important an issue to allow one section of business to close down community Wi-Fi networks like OWN — and many others in coffee shops, holiday parks and public areas — using dubious letters alleging copyright infringement.

Malcolm Corbett is chief executive of the new Independent Networks Co-operative Association, which represents organisations building and operating independent next-generation broadband networks in the UK.

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