Be legal with spare Wi-Fi capacity

Wi-Fi 802.11g devices offer a potential 54mbps wireless network connection to anyone within 100 metres of an access point via a...

Wi-Fi 802.11g devices offer a potential 54mbps wireless network connection to anyone within 100 metres of an access point via a network card costing less than £100. But what legal obligations do you face if you allow others to use your spare network capacity, perhaps as an an extra customer service or a way of boosting revenue?

First, there is a duty to preserve the confidentiality of your customers and clients when data is travelling across, or made accessible via, someone else's network.

Second, regulatory bodies will take a dim view if client information is accidentally disclosed, especially if it is commercially-sensitive.

Third, much of the information on a business laptop or PDA will refer to individuals, and thus be classed as personal data, so you need to comply with data protection laws.

If a Wi-Fi operator offers you "reasonable" care when visitors pay for access, there is no way of knowing what this means until the first operator gets sued for "unreasonable" carelessness.

The ideal scenario for the operator and network provider would be to negotiate a contract so both parties are clear about their responsibilities and obligations towards each other.

There are also contractual matters to consider with regard to your existing internet or telcoms service provider, such as ensuring external users do not indulge in spamming or promulgating illicit content. You will be obliged to ensure that traffic from external users is securely partitioned from data belonging to your own clients and colleagues.

The service you provide to network visitors must be made clear. Consider the potential liability of losing their data or failing to provide a "proper" service.

Wi-Fi has the potential to replace cabling in corporate networks but providing open access to spare capacity is still an unknown. The cost of dealing with the legal risks could make it commercially unviable, and it is unlikely that anyone will offer free or cheap access any time soon.

Chris Reed is a consultant to law City law firm Tite & Lewis

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