Computers and the Internet
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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 overheard.

For more information, see the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s site at

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 dish.
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 addresses.
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

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 protection software.

"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 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 or otherwise.

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 surveillance.

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 your privacy.

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 surveillance.

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 For additional information, see

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, 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, and other retailers have a vested interest in protecting their customers and appreciate reports of suspicious emails or sellers.
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: or the FTC’s site at:

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