Collateral damage could kill hotspots

Toll barrier coming down on free range WiFi.

Free public WiFi access might be an unintended casualty of the imminent onslaught of the Copyright Alert System, otherwise known as the Six Strikes rule. I say “might” because I’m not completely sure that the damage will be unintentional. There’s no doubt there will be damage.

This joint effort by major U.S. ISPs and the recording and movie industry associations is a monitoring program that watches Internet traffic for illegal downloading activity. When it’s spotted, the person or – it now appears – business paying for the access line involved will be at the tender mercies of a “progressive educational system” run by an umbrella organization called the Center for Copyright Information.

The more education required, the stiffer the lesson becomes. It starts with a warning and proceeds to temporary bandwidth throttling. Ultimately, it could lead to an account being shut off.

Businesses, non-profits or public institutions that offer free public WiFi access could face a double whammy. There’s the direct problem of someone logging on and downloading pirated material. Preventing that is beyond the capability of most hotspot operators. So the warnings and throttling will come.

The real slam happens when a casual hotspot provider tries to protest.

“Oh, you say it wasn’t your fault because someone used your public WiFi connection? Well, we can fix that. Your terms of service prohibit sharing your bandwidth, you know. So just shut down that WiFi and everything will be fine. We’ll turn your Internet back on as soon as you do.”

That’s the scenario facing Verizon customers, according to an article in Ars Technica. I can’t imagine other telcos and cable companies behaving any better.

The only ray of hope is that the cumulative inconveniences and annoyances will surely result in enough public anger to make ISPs back off. Or inspire regulators to step in. Wouldn’t it be better to act in a civilized manner in the first place?

We can hope.