When we use the internet we often don’t think about things as being legal or illegal and just accept things to be the way they are as we find them there. And in any case there’s no law or police on the internet, is there? Well there are actually laws and they are things that many of us might inadvertently fall foul of without realising it.
Internet law basics
So now you know there are actual laws governing the internet you might start to panic that there will be a knock on your door in the middle of the night. If you’ve just been browsing there is a chance that you’ve broken a couple of little laws here and there, but the main ones apply to those who have created websites and use the internet as a market place. Still worried? Read on…
The internet is still relatively young in the grand scheme of things and laws have had to be afded as it’s gone along – many not predicting that its use would become so wide and varied with so many potential pitfalls. As such many real world laws which were already in place apply online too. These can relate to privacy, theft, conflict, defamation, trademarks and the like which would apply to businesses or publications in real life.
There are strict laws for not misleading customers which are similar to consumer law offline. False claims regarding the quality or origin of a product cannot be made, nor can you mislead regarding price comparison. Businesses should be as transparent as possible too regarding any affiliates, sponsors or partners they have. This information should be visible on the main page of a website.
Most people who run websites will have made sure this was all in order before they went live, but there are always a few shady characters lurking around on the internet who might not have done. It would pay not to patronise such places.
There are laws too concerning the government of ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and how web pages are linked together.
Most of these laws are international in various forms, but there are a few different ones in different countries too which would be wise to look up if you were starting a website or business outside of your own country.
Much of this does really only apply to those behind the scenes, but what about private, home internet browsing? Are there laws there you might be breaking?
Internet law for browsing
There are a number of practices which you should avoid when browsing online and you might not think of them ordinarily. As a rule of thumb think about whether you would do it in real life. If you wouldn’t it’s best not to do it online.
Defamation is a good example. Going on to a social media site or chat room and abusively making false statements about somebody (this is often done to celebrities or political figures) can be a minefield. If you know what you are saying is false then it is just like printing it in a newspaper once you’ve typed it. It can be libellous and as newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins recently found out following some comments made on Twitter it can be very costly financially too. Many people think cyber bullying or online trolling is just harmless fun, but it carries the same consequences as it would in real life.
Theft is another common problem. If you’re wondering how that’s possible because you can’t walk into an internet store and steal a pack of batteries or a DVD, then you need to think outside the box. Some streaming and torrenting services are not legal and like that warning you see at the start of a film about piracy you are a party to it when you listen to music or watch a movie. There are many sites offering streaming for which you pay that are all above board, but the free ones – but necessarily all free ones – can be stepping into a grey area at the very least when it comes to copyright.
Intellectual property is another item which can be stolen. If you’ve ever taken a joke from a social media website and tried to pass it off as your own you’re stealing someone’s intellectual property If you’ve ever right clicked a photograph and then clicked ‘save as’ you’re stealing someone’s intellectual property. If you’ve penned a short story involving characters who already exist from a TV show or film and posted it on a blog you’re stealing someone’s intellectual property.
This is where it can become a minefield, because even if you aren’t the originator of the intellectual property infraction you can become complicit in the crime if you share it on social media. Nobody is going to check the source material of a funny GIF or story before they hit the share button, but it illustrates how tough the internet is when it comes to theft.
Freedom of speech is revered throughout the free world, but this doesn’t mean you can say whatever you wish. As previously mentioned, defamation is right out, but if you find out something you know to be true and share it, it’s fine, even if unsavoury. Be careful what you post, in other words!
As well as free speech, privacy must also be respected. If you post a photo of yourself with a friend without your friend’s permission you are actually violating their privacy. A bit strange, I know, but the law regarding this is in place for a different reason. It protects children from predators and it protects would be victims of revenge attacks where lewd images or films of a sexual nature are posted in order to embarrass and shame them. Many people have been successfully prosecuted for breaking privacy laws.
As the internet expands, so will the laws surrounding it. It is always useful to make sure you stay on the inside of the law by reading up on any changes.