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Public displays of disaffection

Public WiFi is a good idea if you are on the move and you need to get online quickly and easily. Here in Porto, we’re spoiled with coffee bars that offer free WiFi that is truly free – in other words, you open your laptop and you are instantly online. No need for an encryption key or to log into some account you have to subscribe to.

The problem with completely free public WiFi, of course, is that it is open to abuse. For a start, if your PC is set to share directories with others on your network at home or in the office, connecting via an unsecured wireless network could open up your PC to anyone else browsing next to you. An even bigger problem, though, is the one faced by the business owner who is providing the free WiFi service.

In late November a UK pub landlord was reportedly fined £8,000 after someone in his pub used his WiFi service to illegally download some pirated media.The case was brought by the copyright holder. I don’t know how they caught the offender, but taking action against the provider of the network is a tactic being commonly sought by copyright holders.

Internet users in the US have been hit with fines for thousands of dollars after they signed up to file sharing services and allowed their PCs to be used as distribution points for illegal file searchers. In the UK, media companies are seeking to curtail illegal downloaders by asking for rules to make ISPs responsible for what their users do.

While you have to sympathise with record and movie companies, gunning for the network rather than the individual is a little draconian. It’s a bit like suing BT because someone says something slanderous on a phone call, or taking action against the Highways Agency for providing the roads that are used by drunk drivers.

The net result of such posturing is easy to predict. Throughout the UK we already have a litigation culture where the fear of litigation itself prevents councils, companies or schools from doing anything fun or normal. We can’help teachers walk our kids to school in case we are a paedophile; we can’t have public paddling pools in case children drown; we can’t clearsnow and ice from our own front paths in case anyone then falls over and we get blamed… The list goes on.

In that type of culture, what will happen if a simple pub has to fear being sued for what customers do on its premises? The simple approach is to not supply WiFi at all. In fact, while we’re at it, perhaps having a pub is a bad idea in case, God forbid, someone actually drinks alcohol and then punches someone. For the copyright holders of movies and music, they just have to, pardon the pun, face the music. They will never beat piracy. They will never beat ignorance. What they can do is invest heavily in making sure that whatever the pirates offer, they offer better.

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