Did last night's US presidential debate Wi-Fi rip-off break the law?

It's gonna spell bad news for all of us

The host of the first presidential debate on Monday night, Hofstra University in New York, may have broken the law and could be in line for a huge fine.

Reporters at the event were appalled to find that among the heavily marked-up items they were offered – $150 to rent a lamp, anyone? – was a $200 charge for a "secure wireless internet connection."

Worse than the clear effort to price-gouge people trying to file stories, however, was the fact that the university decided that only its wireless access points were allowed to be used, and even sent someone around with a Wi-Fi signal detector apparently threatening to throw out anyone who was using an "unauthorized" access point.

That action – effectively shutting down people's ability to use their own internet connection in order to force them to use a paid-for service – was ruled illegal in 2014 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a landmark ruling against Marriott Hotels.

In that case, Marriott was actively blocking guests' hotspots to force them onto its paid-for network and argued that since it was its property it could do pretty much what it liked. It and the Hilton also argued that guest access points were interfering with their network and were serving as a security risk.

In Marriott's case, it set up equipment that spammed out Wi-Fi deauthentication packets over the air to knock laptops and other devices off guests' personal hotspots, thus forcing them to use the venues' rather expensive paid-for networks.

The FCC was unimpressed: the watchdog fined Marriott $600,000. It then backed up that fine with a formal advisory, and embarked on some aggressive enforcement of the rules – fining Smart City $750,000 last year for blocking personal Wi-Fi hotspots – to make sure everyone got the message.

Under the rules, "no hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner's Wi-Fi network."

It adds: "Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties."

FCC weighs in

So did Hofstra University break the law and is it in line for a huge fine? Very possibly. We asked the FCC about the situation and a spokeswoman told us: "We are aware of reports of alleged Wi-Fi hotspot blocking at last night's debate. However, as a policy, we do not confirm or comment on potential or pending enforcement investigations."

The university may have two ways to escape a huge fine: it didn't electronically block people's access points – it just threatened to throw people out who used them – and it reached an agreement ahead of time that people wouldn't use their own access points.

An FCC official told us: "Preliminary reports suggest that Hofstra was acting on an agreement with media guests to not use personal Wi-Fi hotspots while on the university's premises. This is different from active Wi-Fi blocking, or deauthentication, which the FCC's Enforcement Bureau found to be occurring in prior enforcement actions."

This apparent distinction between what is legal and illegal will be extremely closely watched by hotel chains.

If Marriott, for example, is not breaking the law if it equips its staff with a device like the one Hofstra University used to track down "rogue" access points and then ask the people with them to leave the premises, you can bet that every security guard will have one in a matter of weeks.

Likewise, if all it takes is for someone to sign an agreement not to use wireless access points for it to become legal for hotels to force people onto their paid service, hotels will almost certainly write such a clause in contracts that any company wishing to use their conference facilities will have to sign.

In other words, Hofstra's effort to bilk a few media organizations for a few thousand dollars for one night might result in everyone who attends a conference in the United States from now on having to pay $20 a day for internet access or be asked by a gruff security guard to leave the premises.

Oh – and those $200 Cisco-powered Wi-Fi hotspots? Yeah, they went down, crushed by the network load. ®

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