On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an Enforcement Advisory that notified businesses that blocking personal WiFi networks, or “hotspots,” is illegal and in violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act. Such actions, the FCC warned, “could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.”

This warning comes after the FCC investigated Marriot International for blocking guests’ personal WiFi networks at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee in 2012. During the investigation, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau found that Marriot employees had used features of a WiFi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to contain or de-authenticate guest-created WiFi hotspots in the conference facilities. During this time, Marriot charged conference attendees anywhere from $250 to $1,000 per device to connect to the hotel’s WiFi. The FCC fined Marriot $600,000 and required the company to file compliance and usage reports with the Enforcement Bureau every three months for three years.

Marriot subsequently petitioned the FCC to modify the Communications Act to allow the hotel chain to block access to WiFi devices in conference spaces. Marriot cited worries that conference space users could launch cyber attacks on the company’s network or that users could disrupt WiFi service for the conference or guests. However, during the investigation, Marriot disclosed to the FCC that the customers it blocked did not pose a security threat to the Marriot network.

Many tech companies such as Google and Microsoft voiced opposition to Marriot’s attempt to block personal WiFi networks. Google stated that allowing hotels to block WiFi “would undermine the public interest.”

The FCC sided with these companies in their announcement, stating that “[n]o hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal WiFi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s WiFi network.”

Before the FCC’s ruling was announced, Marriot issued a statement saying that it would not block guests from using their personal WiFi devices at any Marriot hotel. However, the statement did note that Marriot would look to the FCC to “clarify appropriate security measures network operators can take to protect customer data, and will continue to work with the industry and others to find appropriate market solutions that do not involve the blocking of [WiFi] devices.”

However, more fines may be on the horizon for certain companies. The FCC’s announcement also noted the increased amount of complaints that they have received following Marriot’s fine.

“Following the settlement, the Enforcement Bureau has received several complaints that other commercial WiFi network operators may be disrupting the legitimate operation of personal WiFi [hotspots],” the notice says. “The Bureau is investigating such complaints and will take appropriate action against violators.”

–Danielle Drago

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