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S'pore Wi-Fi hotspots protected from lawsuits

As long as operators of public Internet access areas aren't complicit in security breaches, they won't be liable in eyes of Singapore's law, says lawyer.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor on

SINGAPORE--Service providers that offer public Internet access, including retail outlets such as Starbucks or McDonald's, will not be legally liable if malicious hackers ride on their Wi-Fi hotspot to download illegal content or conduct other cybercrimes, according to a lawyer specializing in intellectual property (IP).

This week, a U.K. pub was fined after someone unlawfully downloaded copyrighted material over their open Wi-Fi network.

In Singapore, however, as long as the providers of such Internet services are not complicit or aware of the illegal act, they will not face prosecution in local courts, said Mark Lim, head of intellectual property of media and entertainment at local law firm, Tan Peng Chin.

"Open Wi-Fi providers will only be liable if they actively encourage or know that their customers are using their Internet source to conduct illegal activities online [and] yet continue allowing them access to its hotspot," said Lim in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia.

According to Singapore's Copyright Act, one is liable when the person authorizes infringement of copyrighted works, he added.

Not so clear-cut in U.K.
Legal lines may not be as clear in the United Kingdom. According to a report by ZDNet Asia's sister site ZDNet UK, Lilian Edwards, a professor of Internet law at Sheffield Law School, said: "Businesses running open Wi-Fi networks should brace themselves for a slew of copyright warnings from IP rights (IPR) holders.

"You're probably OK for now in terms of data retention, but watch out for the pile of copyright infringement warnings coming your way." She added that the situation might worsen with the introduction of the U.K. Digital Economy Bill, which stipulates users who download copyrighted content illegally and have been warned by their Internet service providers (ISPs), could face having their Internet access temporarily disconnected.

While Edwards noted that businesses would likely be exempted from having their accounts suspended because the Bill states that only "subscribers" can be targeted with sanctions, the IPR holder seeking infringers of their copyright might not know whether the Internet Protocol address that flouted the law belonged to a private user or a business entity.

In the case of the U.K. pub, the hotspot operator--and also the business owner--will have to point out that they were not the end-user illegally downloading copyrighted content. "But, when would they get to say that? Maybe straightaway, maybe not until after disconnection--it's not currently clear," Edwards said.

Singapore's ICT regulator, Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), could not respond at press time.

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