The European Court of Justice has recently been called on to rule on the use of the Internet and more specifically, of so called free wifi networks (namely wifi networks not protected by passwords), which are often used by Internet users who violate copyright rights, in taking advantage of the anonymity guaranteed by the net.
With its decision of the 15th September 2016 regarding lawsuit C-484/14, the Court of Justice ruled in favour of the acquittal of the administrator of a local wireless network, which was free and accessible without authorization, and which had been used by a user for the online distribution of a piece of music without the consent of the copyright holders.
Acknowledging Internet access services to be a service in the information society, which simply consist in the provision of access to a communication network, the Luxembourg Court adjudged the wifi network administrator to be exempt from all liability in accordance with Directive 2000/31/EC. As in the case of hosting service providers, the latter is in fact under no obligation (nor does he have the concrete means) to have any knowledge of and monitor information transmitted by his network.
However, keeping the necessary balance between fundamental rights (in the present case, the freedom to do business and copyright), the Court further stated that national judicial authorities may require service providers to put a stop to copyright violations or to prevent them, provided that the technical measures necessary to achieve this do not excessively restrict the provider’s freedom to do business.
According to the Court of Justice, protecting wifi networks with a password represents a technical measure which “in no way prejudices the essential content of the rights” of access service providers and at the same time, is appropriate for protecting copyright “insofar as network users are obliged to reveal their identity and cannot therefore act anonymously”.