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Wifi Police/y

November 26th, 2008

The other day a librarian asked me about wifi policies – who needs one, what should it say, is the library liable for wifi use/abuse, etc.  The first two questions are easy: everyone needs a wifi policy.  No exceptions.  It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece- you could borrow some of the language of your current internet access policy, perhaps adding a few lines like “don’t abuse our wifi by hogging bandwidth, and only use it for legal purposes“.  It could also be helpful to let people know whether or not your wifi is encrypted; it may keep them from risking personal information on an open wifi connection.

The question of library liability is trickier- I’m no expert on law, so I sought the opinion of Phil Lenzini, the System’s attorney.  Here is his response:

This is a great question and I wish I had a great answer, but I really  don't
(yet).  As you probably realize although Wifi has been around for a  while
now and has installation in both public libraries and schools, but also  the
"private sector" (Starbucks, et al) there isn't really any "law" yet in the
sense of any court decisions I know of regarding any liability issues.   That
could be because it takes a bit of time to generate lawsuits and for them  to get
through the courts to a "court of review" which publishes their decisions  and
would have some precedental value.  Plus is may be that any  "liability," or
the precursor "any injury" or damage, has not in fact happened  to even
generate litigation. (The only case I know of dealing with Wifi is out  of Germany
last year and the only thing we can learn from it, in my view, is  that first,
the troublemakers were "stealing" the access [which in our  library/Starbucks
set up wouldn't be working in our favor] and second, the  lawsuit was brought
by copyrighted stuff wanting to stop infringers [if they  could "find" them],
which is likely to be our biggest real court problem too. In  any event the
court found the Wifi "provider" wasn't liable - but remember it  was being
I will say that I don't really see any real negatives when comparing the
library installation with the "private sector" though and I do see some slight
positive difference in the "partial immunities" that local governments still
have in Illinois (more against negligence claims but not "wilful and wanton" or
 intentional acts).
I do think disclosures or warnings would always be useful if they are
factually accurate and clearly or simply enough stated as to be understandable  by
the average consumer, but I think prohibitory language about illegal,
inappropriate uses and copyright violations to be equally important  elements.  I
don't know what the technology in place would permit us to do,  and I suspect it
varies depending on choices we make as to the Wifi structure in  place.  For
instance if it is totally "open" as I believe Starbucks is, it  may not have any
"threshold" except the laptop, with Wifi capability,  simply signing on.  If
instead you have it locked down and it can only  be accessed by a password (or
a hack) then I suspect at that threshold you could  require the patron to
sign or click through at least a screen with the  disclosure/warning.  But as I
understand your question, you're talking the  "open" type and about all the
library could do would be to have adopted a  policy on Wifi and access (which I
do think would be wise, though perhaps very  difficult to enforce) somewhat
similar to their old internet access policies,  where they prohibit use of the
network or internet access if anything illegal or  inappropriate is involved.
That policy could also include all  disclaimers and warnings and at least be
"published" in the same way all of its  policies and regulations are (usually
just a handbook of patron policies  somewhere in the Library).  Again I'm not
sure how enforceable that may be  and my techie days are a bit behind on all of
our Wifi and networking  capabilities.  I do know that the library itself may
be the contact point  for the FBI or law enforcement when using a Wifi (or
other internet connection)  as far as IP addresses go, and the difficulty in
trying to track back as to the  individual user who may have used the connection
illegally always seems to be a  problem.
It's a tough question, especially at this point in time, but my "gut"
feeling is that other than a policy itself, there isn't much liability avoidance
that can be done, but there isn't that much risk either.  I do think that  the
patron assuming they have a Wifi ready laptop will likely be held to some
standard (like an "assumption of the risk" or a "buyer beware") that  further
relieves the provider/library of some of the liability (at least as long  as the
Library is acting responsibly in it's creation and maintenance of the  router,
the network, internet gateway, etc).
Hope that helps somewhat, but keep me advised if problems arise.

Phillip B.  Lenzini

It seems like the issue of liability for library wifi internet access is still largely untested in court.  Without worrying about the vicissitudes of the law, I think it is essential to at least have a wifi access policy that is in line with how you imagine wifi should be used at your library (with similar rules to your regular internet access policy, perhaps).  Even if it’s not written in water-tight legalese, it will still help you avoid a litany of problems.

If your library already has a wifi internet access policy, what does it look like?

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