A leading association for owners of small businesses has warned its members against offering free Wi-Fi to their customers.

The National Federation of Independent Business is concerned that its constituents may lose their establishment’s entire Internet access, even in situations where the connection is necessary for operational, billing and financial services, if customers engage in illegal downloading.

“Small businesses rely on their Internet connections the same way they do the telephone,” said Beth Milito, senior executive counsel for NFIB. “It’s how they communicate with customers and vendors. It’s where they do business.”

The organization realizes that free Wi-Fi is attractive to new and existing customers, so it hopes members will change their policies rather than simply unplug the feature. Milito recommends printing a password on receipts and changing it frequently, to prevent miscreants from taking advantage of the bandwidth generosity. She also says owners could consider filtering software, but cautions that this action may block innocuous sites as well.

The group issued guidelines about the recently reached agreement under which Internet service providers will take “mitigating measures” like warnings and service slow-downs, that will escalate in severity before disconnection.

“With more and more people carrying smartphones and even tablets, free Wi-Fi can help a small business attract and keep customers,” Milito said, “but unless a business owner uses commonsense and takes precautions, those customers could come at a hefty price.”

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