DCC's free internet plan poses legal risk

Cyber criminals could exploit plans for a free wireless internet service in Dunedin and leave the Dunedin City Council legally responsible for their nefarious behaviour, an industry expert is warning.

The claim was made by Dunedin businessman Stu Fleming, the managing director and chief technical officer of the Dunedin-based internet service provider WIC NZ Ltd, former InternetNZ councillor and current member.

He said the council's wireless (Wi-Fi) internet proposal had some merit, but warned it would establish the council as the customer of an internet service provider, rather than "anonymous" end-users making use of the free service.

That in turn could see the council carrying legal liability for any copyright infringements by those using the network to download music, movies or games illegally, he warned.

Others could use the network to access objectionable material, harass others or breach protection orders, he warned.

The council should "urgently seek a legal opinion" on how to reduce or avoid any legal risks associated with the Wi-Fi proposal, he said.

"The proposal as it stands opens the council to potentially significant legal liability for any illegal action . . . that might be carried out by an end-user.

"The legal liability issue . . . I regard as a potential show-stopper," he said.

Mr Fleming's concerns were presented to Dunedin city councillors at a public forum on Wednesday.

Contacted yesterday, Cr Dave Cull - a member of the council's digital communications strategy group - said the warnings had to be taken seriously, and would be discussed at the next meeting of the strategy group.

Changes to the proposal could result, possibly including password-protected access to the network, although that risked discouraging others from using the service, he said.

"We would be foolish not to investigate what he [Mr Fleming] has to say."

Speaking at the public forum, Mr Fleming also warned the cost of establishing a trial Wi-Fi network in the Octagon could "roughly double" from the $8500 estimated, and a wider network covering the city could cost $10 million.

The scheme also risked creating a "de facto monopoly" for one ISP contracted to the council, restricting private sector Wi-Fi choice and innovation in Dunedin.

Mr Fleming acknowledged that could interfere with his own commercial activities, although "I leave that to one side".

He urged councillors to focus on developing a high-speed fibre broadband loop linking the city's high-tech businesses and institutions, with free Wi-Fi providing access to the loop.

"I believe that massively greater benefits could be achieved that would truly set Dunedin apart as a city with technological vision and ability," he said.

Also addressing the public forum, Dunedin web designer Paul Le Comte said the Wi-Fi plan risked "picking winners" among the city's cafes, by encouraging customers to visit those Octagon businesses with free Wi-Fi.

"Those businesses which don't have the service will be instantly excluded," he said.

Instead, the council should encourage individual cafe owners to invest in their own free Wi-Fi services, which would attract customers.

Cr Cull said the suggestion was "not silly" and alternatives would be considered, but if councillors supported launching the planned council-funded free Wi-Fi network, the scheme had to "start somewhere".

The planned 12-month trial of free Wi-Fi in the Octagon won support at last month's meeting of the council's economic development committee, but would be considered again at the next full council meeting on August 17.

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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