The Future of Community Wi-Fi – you’ll have to buy a coffee

Back in the day, we shared Wi-Fi.  We kept our connections open, and imagined that this would be a way to get to know our neighbours, or to build community.  So excited were we that Sociable Design created a “Wi-Fi Thank You.” to start making some of those connections between people connected in the ether. Cities and governments came up with ways of sharing Wi-Fi too:  it spawned a whole industry in the United States (and more than a few PhD theses).  We scholars came up with models to describe how this sharing could define Wi-Fi as a public good – as a communications infrastructure that didn’t have to be privately owned and that would benefit a broad range of citizens.

But it would appear that the days of sharing are numbered.  Ofcom’s “Online Infringement of
Copyright and the Digital Economy Act 2010″ makes people who share Wi-Fi liable for any copyright infringement on their network, as PCPro reports today.  The Act states,

“We consider that a person or an undertaking receiving an internet access service for its own purposes is a subscriber, even if they also make access available to third parties.”

These rules make anyone who shares, liable for copyright infringment – potentially to the tune of £250,000.00.  Heavy legal provisions have already made community Wi-Fi projects dry up and disappear in France, and in Germany Wi-Fi must be locked by law.  So much for the internet as a public good!

So, what to do?  Well, Ofcom’s consultation is open until June 10, so you can submit a response . . .

Or, you could follow the letter of the law.  The proposed act states that if Wi-Fi is provided along with another good or service, the provider is considered to be an ISP – and the Act’s provisions don’t apply to ISPs with fewer than 400,000 customers.  That means hotel lobbies and coffee shops aren’t considered as individual subscribers – because there’s a financial transaction somewhere. By my reckoning, we don’t normally pay for public goods. But maybe the cup of coffee could be really, really cheap – so cheap, we’d still be sharing.