Why Open WiFi is Endangered in Europe? And Why it Matters? An Open Letter

Technology that helps to save human lives is now endangered by the copyright enforcement.
In World Disasters Report 2013, the Red Cross celebrated an innovation developed by Dr. Paul Gardner-Stephen from Flinders University. His invention was designed to ease decentralized communications between individuals in absence of any usual connectivity. This radically helps to improve on-the-ground fight against humanitarian crises occurring in the aftermath of disasters. The new mode of communication is based on a simple technology that is widely available – open WiFi. Open wireless allows for free flow of data between rescue teams and/or victims, even in absence of any “outside-world connection”, such as Internet or mobile networks, that are often unavailable.
But even if the regular connectivity is available, open wireless can be crucial. During 2012 earthquake in northern Italy, local authorities requestedthe general public to remove passwords from their private WiFi networks in order to allow the widest possible emergency access to communications networks. Similarly when in 2007, the 40-year old bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the river, open WiFi played an important role in managing the response and recovery efforts. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in New York, open wireless networks again became a crucial form of communication infrastructure.
But saving lives goes beyond “mere” disaster management. General Motors, for instance, is working on Wi-Fi-equipped cars to detect pedestrians and cyclists as way of preventing accidents. “This new wireless capability could warn drivers about pedestrians who might be stepping into the roadway from behind a parked vehicle, or bicyclists who are riding in the car’s blind spot,” notedNady Boules from General Motors for Gizmag yet in 2012.
These and other similar innovations are now under threat in Europe. And this is no exaggeration. European sky of wireless hotspots might soon become password-protected by default in order to prevent copyright infringements (German one already is for a while). It is the Luxembourg judges at the Court of Justice of the European Union who hold the keys from future.
In a recent preliminary reference of McFadden C-484/14, the judges have to decide whether password-protection is a legitimate enforcement technique and whether it is to be expected from the operators of open wireless or not. Since the procedure before the CJEU (unlike ECtHR) does not allow participation of third parties, the broad coalition of organizations is now publicly addressing an open letter to the CJEU demonstrating that general requirement of password protection of open wireless would constitute an obstacle to legitimate trade (Art. 3(2) of the Enforcement Directive, Article 41(1) TRIPS Agreement) and should be outlawed. The brief (co-authored by me) gathers very strong evidence of socially beneficial uses of open wireless that will be entirely crippled or at least partially prevented if password locking becomes a standard.
The decisive legal framework is in Article 8(3) of the InfoSoc Directive prescribing the Member States to grant copyright holders a right to assistance against intermediaries whenever are their services used by third parties to infringe.In answering the demands of right holders, it does not matter whether an intermediary misbehaved. Hisfactual and legal position to prevent third party wrongdoing alone suffices to establish a course of action. Whether a particular type of assistance is permissible or not, thus does notturn on much else than how good policy it is for the society at large. Fighting copyright infringements is surely legitimate, but as any optimalenforcement policy, it should not be carried out at all costs, especially when the socialcosts outweigh private benefits. The Luxembourg judgeshaveundeniably a track record of understanding thisbasic proposition of optimal enforcement (e.g.Sabam C-360/10, Scarlet Extended C-70/10).
Our 21st century needs 21st century infrastructure. Closing open WiFi would be a step back, and not a leap forward. Intellectual property enforcement should spur economic progress and not lead to devaluation of the society. It is hoped that the Court of Justice of the European Union will be again mindful of this when giving its answers in McFadden. Please readthe open letter yourselfto consider whether also your organization (commercial, academic or non-profit) would like to support it by joining the signatories.

Cross-posted with Stanford’s CIS blog.

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