Debate Organizers Are Forcing Press to Pay $200 for Wi-Fi
WiFi is an essential tool for journalists, right up there with a notepad and a pen. Reporting stories, fact-checking sources, and communicating in real time demands reliable Internet access, which explains why many reporters carry mobile hotspots.
Except at tonight’s presidential debate at Hofstra University. According to Kenneth P. Vogel of Politico, debate organizers are insisting that journalists shut off their personal hotspots and fork over $200 to access the university’s Wi-Fi service.
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) September 26, 2016
In a subsequent tweet, Vogel said it doesn’t appear that anyone is actively jamming WiFi signals, but organizers are threatening to revoke the credential of any reporter using a hotspot. Repeated efforts to reach Hofstra University officials for comment so far have been unsuccessful.
The move is troubling, but experts say it may well be legal. Last year the Federal Communications Commission cracked down on hotels that blocked WiFi hotspots to make guests to pay for Internet service. But as long as Hofstra University isn’t jamming signals, it might not run afoul of the FCC’s regulations.
“It does not sound legal in that they shouldn’t dictate how you use Wi-Fi and it would be hard to prove or enforce,” says Rashida Richardson, legislative counsel at New York Civil Liberties Union. “However they may have rights as owners of private property that makes this unclear.”
A big part of resolving the question depends on whether reporters signed contracts or other binding agreements before the event. “It does raise some troubling questions about restrictions on media and use of one’s own devices,” says Fred Jennings, a cybercrime lawyer at Tor Ekeland, PC. “But typically, ‘ticketback’ contracts that prohibit certain activities within a space are OK, unless otherwise illegal or discriminatory.”
In other words, if you’re on someone else’s property, you generally have to follow their rules. Still, it’s a rule that will favor reporters from well-heeled publications over those for whom $200 is quite a bit to pay.