Computers and the Internet
|While there is no difference between the law offline and
the law online, the internet creates a new context for existing laws.
Cyberspace not only requires a redefinition of concepts that are already
familiar in the brick and mortar world, but often challenges the law to
respond to new ideas and situations.
Email may feel like whispering, but
it is more akin to yelling back and forth in an open field.
Eavesdropping can occur at any point during the delivery of your
messages. Even if you delete your mail, messages may remain on servers
or backup devices for unlimited periods of time. If you are suspected of
a crime, law enforcement officials can seize all your email. In certain
situations, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) may also legally be
able to look at the contents of your email.
At work, employers are not required to
inform you if they monitor your email. Your boss has the legal right to
review all email you send from work, even if you send it through a
private account. Further, if your company is involved in a lawsuit, the
opposing side has the legal right to inspect all your email. You have no
reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to email and instant
messages sent while at work.
While encrypting your email messages offers
some privacy, the best policy is to treat email as a public conversation
you would not mind if your boss, law enforcement or anyone else
For more information, see the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s site at www.epic.org.
Internet "Spam” refers to unwanted
email advertisements: not the cube of meat made and trademarked by
Hormel. The term supposedly comes from a Monty Python skit about a
restaurant where Spam™ was a pervasive ingredient, featured in every
Spam itself is not illegal, but it is
annoying and can sometimes carry viruses or be used for unlawful
purposes. In 2003, Congress passed the CAN-SPAM Act, which regulates
spam. The Act requires unsolicited email messages to include the
sender’s real email address and a way to opt-out of receiving future
email. Many consumer groups suggest you do not respond to spam, as that
lets the sender know your email account is active. This could result in
even more spam being sent to you.
The CAN-SPAM Act also provides for the
creation of a "Do Not Spam” list. The government recently decided not to
create such a list at the present time, as there is no way to ensure
spammers would not use it as a resource for acquiring more email
The low cost of spam requires only the
smallest response to generate income for the spammer, so spam is
unlikely to abate anytime soon. But many ISPs, online email services and
software companies offer filters to help control spam and prevent
objectionable emails from becoming a main ingredient in your inbox.
For information on the Federal Trade Commission’s CAN-SPAM Act, the telephone Do Not Call List and more, see http://www.ftc.gov/spam/.
Phishing, Spyware, And Other Invasions
The unfortunate downside to all the benefits
the internet offers are the hackers, thieves and con artists that are
constantly coming up with new ways to damage your computer and steal
your personal information. An understanding of what might be lurking out
in cyberspace can help you choose the best types of firewall and virus
"Phishing” occurs when an email is sent that
pretends to be from a legitimate business and tries to trick you into
giving out private information that will be used for identity theft. The
email will usually send you to a web site to "confirm” or re-enter your
personal information. While the web site will often look like a
legitimate site, its only purpose is to steal information.
"Spyware” is any software program that
gathers information about you through your internet connection. Once
spyware is on your computer, it can transfer information about your
internet use, email addresses, passwords and credit card information. It
utilizes your computer’s memory and system resources and can lead to
instability or system crashes. Exposure to spyware can occur in many
ways, including downloading certain programs, clicking on advertisements
or responding to spam.
Spyware can monitor keystrokes, scan files
on your hard drive, snoop on other applications (like instant messaging
or word processors), install other spyware programs, change your default
home page and read cookies. (A "cookie” is a small text file that
allows the server to identify you and is often used to personalize web
pages.) As it collects this information, the program will continuously
send this information back to the spyware author who will either use it
for advertising or sell the information to someone else.
Sometimes all the information collected by
spyware is used for identity theft or fraud. It is extremely difficult
to catch these thieves and people are often victims without even
realizing it. You should check your credit report annually to ensure
there are no credit cards under your name that you did not request. You
are legally entitled to one free credit report each year. Visit
www.annualcreditreport.com to find out more and request a credit report.
Fraud and theft are illegal whether they
occur online or off. As with all internet crimes, it can be difficult to
catch perpetrators, as they do not even need to be in the same country
as their victims. A good defense is the best protection, which includes
installing reliable firewall, spyware and virus software, as well as
being suspicious about requests for personal information through email
USA Patriot Act
The USA Patriot Act (Uniting and
Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to
Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) was passed in response to the
September 11 terrorist attacks to investigate and prevent further
terrorism. The Act alters a number of existing laws, but the most
relevant sections for internet users are those that deal with
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution protects you against "unreasonable searches and seizures.”
This means law enforcement needs to show "probable cause” before
undertaking a search of you, your environment or your property. Probable
cause is deemed an objective standard, requiring that the facts would
suggest to a "reasonable man” that it is likely that the person being
searched has committed a crime. This standard protects your rights and
The Patriot Act allows for searches that
meet a lower standard of evidence. For example, a judge can grant
investigators permission to access personal phone and internet records
if they are "relevant for an on-going investigation.” This means you do
not even need to be suspected of a crime for law enforcement to be able
to view your records.
The Act also does not require officials to
inform you of a search in advance if it might impede the investigation.
Further, if a suspect uses a computer that is available to others, such
as at work, in a library or in an internet café, law enforcement can
install surveillance programs on the computer and monitor the computer
and the internet use of anyone who uses the computer. The other people
using the shared computer have no right to be notified of the
Nobody would argue with the necessity of
preventing future terrorist attacks. How we accomplish this task is a
subject that demands we engage in an educated and informed discussion
about how we envision our internet, our country and our world. You can
read the Patriot Act at http://www.epic.org/privacy/terrorism/hr3162.html. For additional information, see http://www.eff.org.
Shopping on the Internet
The internet offers convenience and
accessibility to shoppers, but there are steps you can take to make sure
you receive the products you order and are not a victim of fraud.
When purchasing an item from online
retailers that allow individuals to sell items through their sites, such
as EBay or Amazon.com, be careful to use only the official websites. Do
not respond to emails or "second-chance” auction offers that come from
private email addresses, especially if they ask for personal information
such as credit card numbers or passwords.
Buy from reputable retailers and be sure you
only enter credit card numbers and other sensitive information on
secure pages. You will sometimes see a "padlock” icon at the bottom of
your screen and the address at the top of your browser will be preceded
with "https.” This ensures the information you enter is encrypted. When
in doubt, phone your information in, or purchase the item elsewhere.
EBay, Amazon.com and other retailers have a vested interest in
protecting their customers and appreciate reports of suspicious emails
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)'s Mail or
Telephone Order Rule covers products you order by mail, telephone,
Internet or fax. The Rule requires that goods you buy through these
means must be shipped within the time the seller has advertised. If no
time period is specified, the goods must be shipped within thirty days
of your order.
If the items cannot be sent on time, you
should be notified of any delay and told when to expect delivery. The
seller must also offer to cancel your order and send a refund within one
week if you choose not to wait. For more information, visit the
American Bar Association’s site: http://www.safeshopping.org/ or the FTC’s site at: www.ftc.gov/bcp/menu-internet.htm.
Copyright and Trademark Infringement
Copyrights and trademarks are known as
"intellectual property.” Just as you cannot take books or other items
from someone’s home, you cannot walk off with their work, regardless of
where it may be located.
A copyright is a bundle of rights that
exists in works that are creative or artistic, such as literary works,
movies, musical works, sound recordings, paintings, photographs,
choreography, software and industrial designs. The owners of these
rights can control how their work is used for a limited time, as well as
sell, license or otherwise use the work to their benefit.
A trademark is a distinctive sign or symbol
used by a business to identify itself and its products to consumers.
Businesses invest a great deal of money into establishing and
cultivating these marks and will go to great lengths to protect them
from being used without permission or in a way that hurts their brand.
Many people think that music, artwork, text
and photographs on the internet are unprotected by copyright. This is
not true—just because the work is found on the web or does not have a
copyright or trademark symbol on it does NOT mean it is unprotected or
in the "public domain.” The only way to legally use a copyrighted work
is to obtain permission from the copyright owner. Giving credit to the
owner of the work (such as listing the name of the person who took a
photograph) does not give you the necessary permission and you could
still be sued for infringement.
The only exception to using copyright work
without permission is known as "fair use.” Fair use allows the public to
use portions of copyrighted materials for such things as criticism and
commentary, news reporting, research and scholarship, nonprofit
educational use and parody. However, whether a use is "fair” or not
depends on a variety of factors, including how much of the work is used
(using the entire work is not fair use) and is usually decided within
the context of a lawsuit.
The safest path is to assume all material is
protected by copyright or trademark unless you know for a fact it is
not. If you reproduce copyrighted or trademarked work without
permission, you can be sued for infringement by the copyright or
trademark owner. Lawsuits are even more likely if you make money or
cause the owner of the work to lose profits due to your infringing use.
The recent lawsuits against individuals who downloaded music from the
internet without paying for it are just one example of how copyright
owners are protecting their work.
For more information, visit www.copyright.gov.