Internet Law Primer


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A primer on Internet and cyberspace law

Published in: Education, Technology

Internet Law Primer

  1. 1. Presented by Professor Mark Grabowski (Note: This is not legal advice)
  2. 2. We’ll discuss… <ul><li>History of Internet Law </li></ul><ul><li>Why It’s Difficult to Regulate </li></ul><ul><li>Which Laws Exist? </li></ul><ul><li>Which Legal Issues Remain? </li></ul>
  3. 3. When it comes to law and order, the Internet may seem like the Wild West
  4. 4. But there are laws… <ul><li>In the 1997 case Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union , the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that content on the Internet should be protected by the First Amendment. This was the first major ruling regarding regulation of materials online. So, Internet law does not have the same long-standing Supreme Court precedents (as does areas such as campus speech and newspaper publishing) due to its newness. </li></ul>
  5. 5. Regulating the Internet is difficult <ul><li>Many proposed laws have been ruled unconstitutional for being too broad and vague. </li></ul><ul><li>Recent legislation, such as the Child Online Protection Act and Communications Decency Act proposed by Congress, sought to ban “lewd” and “annoying” material. But what does that mean? </li></ul>
  6. 6. Jurisdictional issues… <ul><li>The Internet, unlike broadcast stations, is worldwide and therefore beyond U.S. jurisdiction in many cases. We can’t control what’s on a Turkish website, unless we block access to certain websites as China does. Do we want that? </li></ul>
  7. 7. Who’s to blame for bad content? <ul><li>The Internet allows for a lot of anonymous speech. Often, authorities have difficulty tracing the source of controversial material. Do we go after websites and Internet service providers – “shoot the messenger”? Is it reasonable/practical to hold them responsible for the millions of things posted online everyday? </li></ul>
  8. 8. Technical difficulties at the Supreme Court have hindered the process… Supreme Court justices lately have displayed a startling level of ignorance about computing and communication methods that many Americans take for granted. Yet, as members of the nation's highest court, they're increasingly setting legal precedents about these very technologies.
  9. 9. <ul><li>At a November oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts, who reportedly drafts his opinions with pen and paper instead of a keyboard, compared a software program being executed on a computer with a typewriter typing out words on a piece of paper. He also referred to Internet search engines as a &quot;search station.&quot; </li></ul>
  10. 10. <ul><li>In an April oral argument, Justice Anthony Kennedy wondered what would happen if a text message were sent to someone at the same time he was communicating with someone else. &quot;[Does] he ha[ve] a voicemail saying that 'Your call is very important to us; we'll get back to you'?&quot; Kennedy asked, eliciting laughter from those in attendance. </li></ul>
  11. 11. <ul><li>During a recent congressional subcommittee meeting, Justice Antonin Scalia admitted he didn't know about the popular social networking service Twitter. &quot;I don't even know what it is ... But, you know, my wife calls me 'Mr. Clueless,'&quot; he said. </li></ul>
  12. 12. Why it’s a problem <ul><li>Technology touches virtually every aspect of our lives and often is affected by laws. With the Federal Communications Commission now aggressively attempting to regulate the Internet, cyberbullying testing the limits of free speech in schools, and bloggers seeking the same rights as journalists, the Court will invariably be called upon to make judgments that relate to technology. </li></ul>
  13. 13. <ul><li>If the Court can't grasp how business inventions have changed since the Industrial Revolution, or how communication methods have changed since Alexander Graham Bell, then they might make decisions that misapply the law due to a misunderstanding of the facts about technology. </li></ul>
  14. 14. More regulation, more problems? <ul><li>Be careful what you wish for. The more you regulate the Internet, the more you empower the government to control it and limit your freedom. </li></ul>
  15. 15. <ul><li>Part I </li></ul><ul><li>What are the laws? </li></ul>
  16. 16. Some regulations are legal… <ul><li>Reasonable Time/Place/Manner restrictions, such as Internet filters required by the Children’s Internet Protection Act on computers in public libraries and schools, have been allowed. </li></ul>
  17. 17. Also Illegal: <ul><li>Spam </li></ul><ul><li>Phishing </li></ul><ul><li>Spoofing </li></ul>Did you know? 90 percent of e-mail sent to Adelphi people is spam. Fortunately, the university uses filters that weeds out most of it before it reaches your inbox.
  18. 18. Copyright laws apply to the Internet! <ul><li>Downloading or distributing copyrighted work --such as music and movies -- can lead to a fine of up to $250,000 or five years in prison. Authorities put fake tracks on file-sharing sites to locate the IP address of illegal downloaders. </li></ul>
  19. 19. So, how is YouTube still in business? <ul><li>Under the “notification clause” of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, Internet service providers are required to remove material from web sites under their control only if notified by the copyright holder of an infringement. This means YouTube can’t be sued for all the music videos and movies posted on their website. This policy annoys recording and movie studios because they must hire people to search YouTube and other sites every day to find copyright violations; they feel that the websites should be responsible for doing the copyright violation “scut work”. Do you agree? </li></ul>
  20. 20. Online photos are protected by copyright <ul><li>Just because it’s easy to copy a photo via a Google images search does not mean it’s legal. Giving credit to the source does not allow you to use it. Unless the photo is in the public domain, you purchase rights to use the photo, or you have the owner’s permission to use her photo, you can not use any image you find online. </li></ul>
  21. 21. Employer/School Regulation of Internet is Legal <ul><li>Employers are allowed to monitor employees’ Internet use, including their emails. Likewise, schools can monitor students Internet use. </li></ul>
  22. 22. Why is this legal? <ul><li>Because they own the computers and e-mail servers and usually require you to agree to Terms of Service before issuing an account. Some people, however, consider this an invasion of their privacy. But, again, legally, it’s OK. </li></ul>
  23. 23. You may also get fired for what you post online <ul><li>In April 2007, a college student filed a $75,000 federal lawsuit against her university alleging that she was denied a teaching certificate and education diploma as a result of a picture on her MySpace page labeled “drunken pirate” in which she is shown drinking out of a yellow Mr. Goodbar cup while wearing a pirate hat. The courts ruled against her and in favor of the university. </li></ul>
  24. 24. <ul><li>In 2010, a North Carolina woman was fired from her job at a pizzeria for a complaining comment about customers posted to her Facebook. </li></ul>
  25. 25. If it’s online, it’s public information… <ul><li>More and more companies are using the Internet to perform checks on potential employees. According to one recent survey, 50 percent of employers use &quot;social networking&quot; sites to run searches on job applicants and 80 percent of employers use search engines to check on candidates. Some countries, such as Germany, are considering a ban on this practice. But it’s currently legal in the U.S. </li></ul>
  26. 26. <ul><li>Part II </li></ul><ul><li>Which areas of law </li></ul><ul><li>are less clear? </li></ul>
  27. 27. Online defamation <ul><li>Publication of a false statement of fact that seriously harms someone’s reputation. </li></ul><ul><li>Five elements: </li></ul><ul><li>Publication, false, statement of fact, serious harm, an identifiable person </li></ul>
  28. 28. Online defamation <ul><li>In cases of libelous statements on the Internet, the degree of liability of Internet service providers depends on the degree to which the ISP exercises editorial control over comments made. </li></ul>Someone defamed on Twitter or Facebook could sue the person who made the comment but probably not the website
  29. 29. Court rulings seem to reward negligent webmasters <ul><li>Ironically, you are more likely to be liable for defamation if you take additional steps to control the content of discussion groups or comments on your website. That makes you a “publisher” of the information. On the other hand, if you do not attempt to monitor and control comments or moderate discussion groups, you can argue that you are merely a distributor of information. Consequently, many attorneys advise their clients to avoid censoring such discussion groups and comments, for fear of defamation liability. Such a hands-off approach can only increase the likelihood that defamatory statements will be made in the future. </li></ul>
  30. 30. SLAPP Suits <ul><li>A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a libel lawsuit filed to censor and silence critics. The plaintiff does not expect to win, but instead aims to intimidate the defendant. In some cases, the plaintiff may not even file a lawsuit but merely have his lawyer threaten to sue. Rather than deal with the time and expense of a lawsuit, many defendants will simply abandon their opposition or criticism. A SLAPP suit may also deter others from participating in the debate or criticism. </li></ul>
  31. 31. Example <ul><li>After a particularly painful visit to the dentist, a woman decided to vent on, a popular consumer rating website. She described her experience in excrutiating detail. “Don’t go here, unless u like mouth torture,” she wrote. Her dentist sued her, claiming the review caused the dentist a drop in revenue. But, thanks to a newly passed anti-SLAPP law in California, a judge dismissed the case and ordered the dentist to pay $43,000 in legal fees to the patient. But now the patient is reluctant to post reviews on Yelp. </li></ul>
  32. 32. Cyberbullying <ul><li>Cyberbullying is the use of e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, pagers, cell phones, or other forms of information technology to deliberately harass, threaten, or intimidate someone. </li></ul>
  33. 33. <ul><li>Following recent student suicides (including one at a Long Island high school) that were linked to cyberbullying, several states have passed or are considering laws that would criminalize cyberbullying. Such legislation, however, raises First Amendment issues. </li></ul>
  34. 34. First Amendment issues <ul><li>Cyberbullying is often limited to online insults about someone's physical appearance, friends, clothing or sexuality. Things like “Sam is a slut,” “Jamal is fat” or “Ricky is ugly.” Statements like that aren’t libelous or an invasion of privacy. They’re simply opinions, and protected by the First Amendment. And that includes mean opinions. </li></ul>
  35. 35. Some cyberbullying is illegal <ul><li>If a statement is threatening (such as I’m going to kill you), or if the statement is libelous (which means it’s provably false and seriously damages someone’s reputation) or if the statement is an invasion or privacy (if it’s a private fact like a medical condition that the individual hasn’t revealed to anyone), that is illegal and we already have laws to deal with that. Additionally, private schools can punish cyberbullies because they’re not governed by the First Amendment (only public schools are). </li></ul>
  36. 36. Should we legislate norms? <ul><li>Some oppose cyberbullying laws because they believe you can't legislate norms, you can only teach norms. Just because there's a law, people don't necessarily follow it. For example, look at using cell phones while driving. Most people seem to do it, especially teenagers. The law in itself does not render citizens virtuous. What do you think? </li></ul>
  37. 37. Network Neutrality <ul><li>Is a principle that advocates no restrictions on content, sites, platforms, etc. related to the Internet. Internet service providers, such as RoadRunner, OptimumOnline, Verizon, Adelphi U., etc. could conceivably control the pipeline so that certain websites may load slower than others or be blocked all together. They could also require websites to pay fees to ensure that their websites load quickly for their visitors. This is a major issue and will surely be the subject of legislation and lawsuits in years to come. </li></ul>
  38. 38. Linking <ul><li>For the most part, there are no restrictions on linking your website to any other website you want to (for example, you could have a link to or on your blog or personal homepage – and you don’t need the other website’s permission). Some countries, such as Australia, however, forbid linking to copyrighted material. </li></ul>
  39. 39. Embedding & Framing <ul><li>However, things like inline linking (embedding videos and photos from other websites) and framing (making a one website appear as if it’s part of the linking website) have been and will likely continue to be the subject of court battles for years to come. Of course, if a Web site permits their users to embed its content, as YouTube does, there wouldn’t be any legal issues. </li></ul>
  40. 40. Framing: It looks like you’re reading content on But this story actually appears on another website, It is permissible in this particular case because has an agreement with the other website. Ordinarily, though, framing is illegal.
  41. 41. Are bloggers journalists? <ul><li>Courts, government officials and others have been reluctant to afford the same rights and protections to bloggers. After all, any one with a computer can call himself a blogger – and giving protections and privileges to reckless, untrained hacks could encourage abuses that make life difficult for real journalists. </li></ul>
  42. 42. <ul><li>The End. </li></ul>