The European Court of Justice (ECJ) released an opinion regarding the restrictions on free Wi-Fi access and internet providers, which could topple Germany’s tight regulations in this area and thus help increase the number of free Wi-Fi spots around Europe. ECJ legal advisor Maciej Szpunar said that companies that offer free Internet access should not be held responsible in case the users of their networks illegally download material protected by copyright. Although Mr Szpunar said businesses should be relieved of liability, he also added that the ECJ might issue an injunction to stop copyright infringement. Although this opinion is not legally binding, it gives a gist of how the final verdict, which is expected within the next few months, will possibly look like.
Germany currently has very tight restrictions under which firms are accountable and liable for illegal activity using their Wi-Fi networks. Critics, however, argue that the restrictions discourage businesses to provide free Wi-Fi access, as they are afraid of taking on the legal risks. EuroISPA, a Brussels-based association of Internet service providers, commented that if the ECJ really rules against the legal accountability for illegally downloaded material “free Wi-Fi could become commonly available across European commercial/retail environments”. Malcolm Hutty, chair of the lobby group’s intermediary liability committee, emphasized that “the economic future of Europe depends on the widespread availability of Internet access, wherever you go, whenever you need it”.
If the final ECJ ruling is in line with Mr Szpunar’s opinion, it could prompt Germany to change its national law. Analysts agree that the timing is right now, as the German government is now also trying to change the legislation that holds businesses accountable for illegal activity committed on their networks but only provided that the networks meet secure encryption standards. Mr Szpunar commented that “any general obligation to make access to a Wi-Fi network secure, as a means of protecting copyright on the Internet, could be a disadvantage for society as a whole and one that could outweigh the potential benefits for right holders”.