Has the Digital Economy (Prohibition) Act killed public wifi?

Peter Scargill, National IT Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses has said that members providing wifi in pubs, restaurants, guesthouses and hotels have already started switching off their facilities.  Zdnet warned this would happen. Silicon.com commented on Government’s “Digital Schizophrenia“. Others expressed similar concerns.  It looks as though they were all too right.

Community wifi is central to meeting the pledges of all three main parties to provide broadband access to the whole of the UK to short order, at affordable cost. It is also central to generating the demand that will help pull through the 100 mbps fibre “pipes” which the parties have all pledged.

But all three also colluded in what already appears to have been a disastrous piece of short term legislation. I assume they wanted to kick the issue into touch so that the incoming government could focus on the economy and public finances.

Instead, it may be that the worst fears of those who warned against hasty legislation may already have come true and they will have to spend time unpicking the pieces.

According to Peter:  “The first BT FON user I spoke to said he had already cut off his FON network for fear of being held responsible for the downloading activity of passers-by. Meanwhile the web is awash with headlines like ‘Open WiFi outlawed by Digital Economy Bill’ and variations therein. Newspapers have apparently reported restaurant owners simply turning off their free WIFI access to customers… indeed this bill has the potential, depending how the press and our usually over-enthusiastic civil servants handle it, to be the DEATH of widely available WIFI access just as it is starting to become pervasive enough to be useful for serious applications”

So how can you help turn this problem into an opportunity for those of the new intake of MPs who understand the technology better than most officials in BIS, DCMS or Ofcom?

Answer:  use the opportunity of the election campaign to ask your local parliamentary candidates what they plan to do about it.

If enough of you do so, they will ask their party for a brief and you can expect a fairly rapid exercise as they compete to promise an immediate review after the election.  

In parallel you should offer to help brief them, after they are elected, so that they can bid to be part of that review.

And, if you decide that you really do like your local candidate – don’t leave it there – take to the streets and help them get elected.  Remember you are electing a member of parliament – not a party leader.  

P.S. I was tasked yesterday at the planning meeting for the Information Society Alliance  (EURIM) post election programme to organise a reception to enable the Class of 2010 to meet UK MEPs. It was suggested that the topic that would most attract both groups was “the protection of Intellectual Property Rights in an on-line world”. A similar event on Broadband was also requested.


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Philip, I don't want to sound unduly cynical, but framing an event on the topic of "the Protection of Intellectual Property Rights in an Online World" seems to me to run a distinct risk of setting things up for the publishing industries to repeat their shamelessly self-serving manipulation of the DEBill debate.

Isn't the broader policy question this: "How should policy-makers balance the social good of universal internet access with the potential harm caused when that access is abused?"

If I thought that new MPs (and indeed existing MEPs) were capable of informed discussion on that topic, I'd feel more comfortable about their ability to come up with a *real* Digital Economy Bill, as opposed to an Analogue Economy Preservation Bill.

Comment from Philip Virgo: you are of course correct on the need to address the broader topic but "in the long run we are all dead". It looks as though an attempt at short-term compromise may have produced a "lose-lose" situation for all players, not just a short-term crisis.

The broader topic raises the equally interesting question of whether the convergence of IPv6 and the Semantic Web will change the entire nature of debate (Information Society v. Surveillance State, freedom of speech versus quality and provenence of information) - especially since the former is being driven by the Pacific Rim nations via the ITU and the latter is being driven by Western Liberals via the W3C. This merits another blog entry.

Digital Economy Pill! http://depill.me/