By Dennis Jones
But bolstering free Wi-Fi access in the absence of security guarantees could leave German users vulnerable to cyberattacks
Germany, an innovation pioneer in so many respects, has for years lagged behind its advanced economy peers when it comes to its free Wi-Fi footprint. For context: Germany has only 1.89 Wi-Fi hotspots for every 10,000 residents, compared to South Korea, which ranks highest in the world with more than 37 hotspots per 10,000 residents. However, as a result of proposed changes to the country’s telecom rules, the “hotspot desert” now seems poised for an explosion in free Wi-Fi access.
Well, why is Germany such a laggard in the first place? Currently, stringent online piracy liability laws make operators of free Wi-Fi — be they coffee shops, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. — solely responsible for what happens on their networks. For example, if a user illegally downloads music over free Wi-Fi, the operator, not the user, would be held liable under Germany’s liability laws.
Predictably, those liability rules have stymied the expansion of free Wi-Fi access in Germany. And that’s why the governing coalition is finally on the cusp of amending them.
However, as with many things in politics, the fight to change liability rules hasn’t been easy. Way back in 2013, the Social Democrats (SPD) — then in the opposition — began beating the drum on the issue, promising to immediately repeal liability of duty if elected.
Well, it’s taken nearly three years, but the German Government — of which the SPD is now a junior member — has finally agreed to repeal liability of duty. The German parliament (the Bundestag) still has to debate the measure, but it seems likely that, by this fall, liability of duty will be a relic of the past.
Although increasing Internet access is usually a good thing, the new reforms lack a mobile security component that would ensure safe surfing for users. In contrast, last year’s reform proposal also indemnified Wi-Fi operators against the potential piracy infringements perpetrated by their users — but only if those operators first took appropriate security measures.
As anyone who’s been reading this blog knows, unsecured, free Wi-Fi hotspots pose significant privacy and security risks to consumers and businesses alike. According to our recently published iPass Mobile Security Report, even with limited free Wi-Fi access, German businesses consider free Wi-Fi hotspots the biggest mobile security threat they currently face. And so in re-litigating the open Internet, public actors need to be mindful of the trade-off between security and access.