Businesses that provide staff and visitors with internet access may face greater risk of legal action for copyright infringement following the passing into law of the Digital Economy Act, it has emerged.
Secondary legislation to be introduced after the upcoming General Election may make universities, libraries and internet café owners liable if their facilities are used by online pirates. Businesses that provide staff and visitors with internet access may face the same sanction.
An Ofcom spokesman said businesses's risk would depend on the contracts they have with upstream suppliers.
"If they are subscribers and share a public IP address across all 'internal' users then they are themselves likely to be liable," she said. "But it may be different if say they are a large company acting as a 'communications provider' supplying 'subscribers' with the internet."
She said that with regards to Wi-Fi hacking, subscribers were responsible for securing their networks. "We are looking to the industries to provide educational material to their subscribers on actions they can take to secure their networks," she said.
David Harrington, regulatory affairs spokesman for the Communications Management Association (CMA), said the crux of the problem was whether the service provided was considered public or private. He said the law was unclear on whether staff and visitors were considered part of a "closed user group" and therefore excluded.
"What is the position of hotel guests who may access the internet from their rooms?" Harrington said. "What is the position of the person on the street outside a Starbucks [Wi-Fi internet café]? The position of the transient user has been ignored throughout the debate," he said.
A spokesman for the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills said Ofcom would draw up a code of practice that would clarify this issue. But first it would consult on the subject.
Asked how businesses might be affected by the Digital Economy Act, he said, "Unfortunately, we are now in purdah because of the election, so we are confined to making only factual statements."
He added that the whole act may change anyway as a result of policies introduced by the new government.
Harrington said he was advising CMA members to sit tight until Ofcom issued the consultation.
A Google spokesperson said the proposals to introduce website blocking, now included in Clause 8, had escaped proper scrutiny. "They were introduced 24 hours before a crucial vote in the House of Lords, without a full debate over whether such a policy is right in principle," he said.
"We absolutely believe in the importance of copyright, but blocking through injunction creates a high risk that legal content gets mistakenly blocked, or that people abuse the system."
Ofcom said it would issue a consultation paper on this and other matters arising from the act by the end of May.