All around the world, many people enjoy free, open Wi-Fi at internet cafe and other widely used public destinations. In Britain, that sight may vanish, though, if a broad piracy bill passes Britain's legislative body.
The new Digital Economy Bill, a piece of copyright crackdown legislation, would hold owners of open Wi-Fi connections in Britain liable for any form of copyright infringement conducted on their networks. There would be zero exceptions for individuals, businesses, public locations, libraries, universities, or small businesses.
That could essentially kill the popular open Wi-Fi movement by making it too dangerous to businesses and universities to offer open services to their customers. Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at Sheffield University states, "[The bill could] outlaw open Wi-Fi for small businesses. 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."
The solution might seem simple; just close the connection, right? If only it were that easy. According to the bill, those with closed connections have to maintain logs of every customer they give access to -- or hire someone to remote monitor users for them. Describes Professor Edwards, "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."
Lord Young, a bureaucrat working with Britain's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) defends the bill. He claims business exemptions would lead to individuals creating "fake" organizations to dodge copyright infringement charges. In a published document (.DOC) he writes, "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."
He argues that universities also deserve no exceptions because a handful already have systems to log users and it would be unfair to "force" them to adopt an open system, common at many other universities. In other words, he argues that the needs of the few, in this case, outweigh the needs of the many. He writes, "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."
The bill is rather vague about whether large networks like universities would be reclassified as internet service providers (ISPs). If they get reclassified, that could add some big expenses for them, as they will be forced to hoard data on their users.
That data would be used to implement the bill's most costly and controversial provision -- a three strikes policy for infringement. Users downloading apparently infringed content would get two warnings and then have their connections severed.
The bill is currently under debate in Britain's House of Lords, which is preparing a version to be proposed as legislation. Opinion polls have shown the British public to be opposed to the bill. The bill is also opposed by ISPs and law enforcement, university, and civil rights groups. The bill does enjoy healthy support from Britain's film and music industry -- about it's only major proponent. Fortunately for them, they have deep ties to some British politicians and have spent a great deal of money lobbying to give their opinions a larger voice than those of the public.
The legislation may cost British citizens $1B USD, according to recent estimates. However, the media industry thinks it will earn an additional £1.7B ($2.72B USD), and the government hopes that raised earnings will lead to more taxes.
Unfortunately, that may come at the expense of small businesses, freely available internet, and its citizens' right to privacy. Some in Britain's government feel that's a small price to pay though to fight the evils of piracy.
Despite the problematic bill, British citizens shouldn't feel entirely bad. In recent discussions about the international piracy pact ACTA, Britain was one of the most vocal supporters of making the pact's provisions known to the public. The U.S. and Denmark were in the minority who had "major concerns" about the bill being made public. In the end, the objections of the UK-led majority would overruled by the U.S. and Denmark-led minority and the terms of the bill were kept secret (though they were eventually leaked).