Hotel, café, pub and restaurant customers all face the risk of being unceremoniously shunted off the information superhighway by a heavy-handed piece of government legislation passed hurriedly last week.
The Digital Economy Bill was given Royal Assent as part of the parliamentary "wash up" process ahead of the pre-election dissolution of Parliament, in a move so quick it would put most broadband connections to shame. The passing of the Bill came despite vocal protests from opposition groups and acres of critical press coverage.
There were plenty of grievances, but the main one centres around a provision that could allow music, film and publishing companies to force internet service providers (ISPs) to switch off the internet connection of anyone they suspect of downloading material that infringed online copyright.
Mark O'Halloran, a partner at Stevensdrake solicitors and an expert in digital media law, explained: "If you are operating a wireless connection you have absolutely no control over what people are doing with that connection. Under the terms of the Digital Economy Bill, that means you could find yourself having your internet connection cut off. It is a very real scenario."
That leaves operators worrying about how the situation might affect them. "If we do nothing then our connections could be stopped," said Ian Hughes, IT manager at Devonshire Hotels.
"We would, therefore, need to do something which will involve costs, which we will never recover, as most establishments now offer this service free. The Government is putting yet more obstacles in the way of honest businesses trying to raise the standards for, on the whole, honest guests."
The difficulty of policing abuse of free Wi-Fi connections is something that concerns pub operator JD Wetherspoon, which offers 767 free Wi-Fi spots around the country.
"Wetherspoon pubs are visited by hundreds of thousands of people each week, and a large percentage of them use Wi-Fi. It would be impossible to police what people are searching on their computer. We don't have the manpower, nor would we want to go up to someone's computer and peek over it," Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon said.
And Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), warned that even though firms that are accused of copyright infringement are able to appeal to the telecommunications regulator Ofcom, the process itself could be a major burden.
"If you are a hotel chain, you may find that there are dozens of potential infringements happening on your network on any one day. And, therefore, you could be hauled up on potential suspension dozens of times," he said.
But the precise sanctions that hospitality operators would face will not be decided until after a 10-week consultation by Ofcom.
The process is likely to start with warning letters being sent to those suspected of copyright infringement, and could potentially be followed by an enforced reduction in bandwidth or the suspension of a connection. It could be over a year until those measures, which will be set out within a code of practice, will actually be introduced.
In the meantime, O'Halloran advises that operators should use the consultation to get their concerns across. "I hope that the industry will start petitioning Government now, if it didn't previously," he said.
And that is just what the BHA, as well as some major companies like café chain Starbucks, are doing, in the hope that they can persuade Government ministers to head off potential sanctions.
However, the sheer political clout of the music firms and movie studios means that the hospitality industry could have a fight on its hands.
How to protect your digital interests
- The Digital Economy Bill has already been passed but the sanctions that internet users face for copyright infringement are not yet set in stone.
- Watch Ofcom's website for details of its consultation on the issue, set to be released in May. When it is launched, you can write to Ofcom and set out your objections.
- Alternatively, contact your local MP and parliamentary candidates and raise the issue with them - they have an election to fight, after all. The BHA is also set to be involved in the Ofcom consultations on behalf of the hospitality industry.
By Neil Gerrard
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