The Digital Economy Bill - which aims to curtail file sharing by introduction stronger sanctions against those found trading in copyright material, up to and including disconnection from the Internet - could have an unfortunate side effect: the death of the free, open wireless access point.

Lillian Edwards, professor of Internet law at Sheffield University, is quoted by ZDNet as stating that the scenarios detailed in an explanatory document produced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would "outlaw open WiFi for small businesses."

The trigger for the warning is comments in the DEB's explanatory document from BIS minister Lord Young who explains that no common class of publicly-accessible WiFi connection could be protected from proceedings under the Bill should one of its users trade in illicit material online. Young even singles out libraries, stating that offering such organisations a 'common carrier' status that would protect them from prosecution under the bill would "send entirely the wrong signal and could lead to 'fake' [libraries] being set up, claiming an exemption and becoming a hub for copyright infringement."

Young also states that universities would also have no protection under the proposed Bill should a student use the network to download copyright material without permission.

Edwards describes the Digital Economy Bill - as it is detailed in the explanatory document - as "a very unfortunate measure for small businesses, particularly in a recessions, [as many] are using open free WiFi very effectively as a way to get the punters in."

Even those who offer some semblance of control - to stop freeloaders from hogging the bandwidth without buying something from the shop - with the use of password protection have just "two options - to pay someone like [commercial managed hotspot provider] The Cloud to manage it for them, or to 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."

Young details two classes of user in the document: subscribers, who have low-bandwidth connections and few end users; and ISPs, who have faster connections and many end users - with "large hotel chains or conference centres" being pushed toward the ISP end of the spectrum. Users who are classed as subscribers - even if they 'resell' the service to others - will be treated the same as a home user under the Bill, receiving notification letters and eventual disconnection should their connection be used to trade in copyright material. Sadly for the Bill, the details are still a little muddy: Edwards points out that universities in particular "don't know if they're subscribers, ISPs or neither. If the government is not clear, how on earth are the universities supposed to respond?"

Do you believe that Edwards has a point and that the Digital Economy Bill would make the administrative burden of running a free wireless service too great for small businesses to bear, or is it the responsibility of whomever provides a connection - no matter what the cost or reason - to police it for copyright infringement? Share your thoughts over in the forums.

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