It’s the end of the world as we know it

Possibly slightly melodramatic; mind you, I like the song. The world that’s ending is the brave, new and, above all, anonymous world of the untamed internet. What’s happened? European bureaucracy – what else?

A shopkeeper in Munich offered a free, open-access WiFi point. The mechanised army of the MPAA found someone using that bandwidth to pirate movies, and in went the lawyers. Sony wanted money; the shopkeeper – with some justification – said it was none of his business what people did with his free WiFi. He got support from the German Pirate Party – fewer tricorne hats and pistols, more neckbeards and unwillingness to pay for other people’s creative output – and the case then ground through the various levels of European justice for six years.

Friday was judgement day. And the consequences will be…interesting. I won’t keep you in suspense: he got off. Err…is that good?, I hear you cry. Well, it depends. The ECJ ruled that he was acting as an ISP (an internet service provider); ISPs are protected by law from infringements committed by their users under another Euro ruling. If you provide bandwidth, the connection is initiated by the user and you don’t modify the traffic, you’re off the hook.

Now for the but. And it’s a doozy. The ECJ also ruled that if you’re going to offer WiFi in your shop, you should password protect it and make users reveal their identities. The password thing is a non-issue; anyone with a brain won’t use an open WiFi connection, because the traffic on it isn’t encrypted. Most local cafés use a password, if only to make sure you buy a coffee before getting on-line.

But when’s the last time they asked you to show them some ID, and made a log of when you connected, and took the details of your laptop, so that they could pass that on to the authorities when asked? Even the more sophisticated WiFi portals you find in places like airport lounges only ask you for an email address, which is hardly a reliable form of ID. And they’re expensive to buy and maintain.

If – and it is a big if, since the ECJ has a track record of contradicting itself from one judgement to the next – this ruling is enforced, simple economics and consumer resistance will mean a lot of coffee shop, theatre foyer and in-store WiFi access disappearing, or being replaced by services tied to existing accounts – BT, Virgin and so forth.

Worth thinking about if you’re about to spend money on a WiFi deployment…

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