Online Law

Q.: What is the Internet?

A.: The Internet is a global network of computers that supports communication and research with approximately 20 million users worldwide. It is non-commercial and has no central governing authority. The Internet supports online communications such as electronic mail (e-mail) and chat sessions (where two or more computer users to "talk" to each other by typing messages that can be viewed immediately by other parties to the electronic "conversation").

Q.: What is the World Wide Web?

A.: The World Wide Web (Web) is an Internet-based hypertext information system. It supports specially formatted documents that may include text, graphics, audio, and video files as well as links to other similarly formatted documents. Individuals can access the Web via a "browser" that runs on a local computer and permits a user to view and interact with Web sites.

Q.: What rights and responsibilities do I have as a user of the Internet or Web?
Your rights and responsibilities depend upon your activities. The Internet allows individuals to:

1. send e-mail to each other;
2. participate in chat sessions;
3. locate information on the Internet or a Web site;
4. send information to the Internet or a Web site; and
5. engage in online transactions with Web sites.

Each of these activities may involve you, one or more other individuals, an Internet Service Provider (ISP), and one or more businesses. Rights and responsibilities may vary depending upon who is involved in an activity, the nature of the activity, and possibly, the content of the communication.

Q.: What if I am sending e-mail?

A.: E-mail communications, like regular mail communications, are meant to be private. There are federal laws that prohibit the interception and disclosure of e-mail communications. However, you should not send e-mail messages expecting that they will remain private and that the laws will be enforced against anyone who discloses the messages. A single e-mail message may travel through many computers, even computers outside of the United States, before arriving at an intended recipient's computer. As the message travels, copies may be made at each of these intermediate computers. Your message may be shared with others accidentally, even with others outside the United States. Therefore, it is best if you try to protect the privacy of the e-mail message.

Q.: What can I do to protect the privacy of my e-mail communications?

A.: If you want to ensure the privacy of your e-mail communications, you should encrypt your messages before sending them. Encryption software used for e-mail messages typically scrambles the message content so that only the intended recipient can read the message. There are two keys that are involved in the encryption and decryption process-a private key that only you know and a public key that may be shared with any message recipient. Your message is encrypted with the private key. Your message recipient uses the public key to decrypt the messages you send. Some e-mail programs include tools to encrypt messages before they are sent. If your e-mail program does not support encryption, you may use a separate program to encrypt messages before sending them.

Another common practice is to add a confidentiality notice to the message. Most confidentiality notices state that the message is intended only for the person to whom it is addressed and may contain confidential information. The notice also prohibits the dissemination or distribution of the message to other parties. Although such a notice does not ensure that a message will remain private, it may stop the recipient from revealing the contents of the message to others.

Q.: What happens when I delete my e-mail messages?

A.: When you delete an e-mail message appearing on your computer screen, you delete only the copy of the e-mail message you are viewing. More importantly, it is possible you are not deleting the message even if your e-mail program tells you the message was deleted. Many e-mail programs only move the selected message to a "deleted messages" list or area. This list of deleted messages may be accessed and viewed at any time as though the message were never deleted. When a message is finally deleted from the "deleted messages" list, it is no longer accessible through the e-mail program.

Copies of the e-mail message may remain at the other computers through which the message has traveled on its way to your computer. Backup copies of the message also may have been created at each of the computers through which the message traveled. As a result, it may be possible to retrieve an archived copy of the message weeks or even years after it was sent.

Q.: What if I am participating in a chat room?

A.: Participants in a chat room assume the risk for their activities. It is a common practice for an individual to hide his or her identity while online. Many ISPs are willing to maintain the confidentiality of their members' identities. When a person believes his or her real identity is protected, that person may share thoughts and comments more freely, even thoughts and comments that others find offensive, objectionable, or defamatory.

Some ISPs have service agreements that attempt to regulate their members' actions in chat rooms as well as with other electronic communications. However, ISPs are not always willing, or even legally obligated, to resolve a complaint by one member against another member. Therefore, if you believe you have been harmed in some way by another Internet user, consult an Internet law attorney who can help you understand your rights.

Q.: Can I say anything I want on the Internet?

A.: Your communications in chat rooms and elsewhere on the Internet or Web are subject to the laws of defamation. The laws of defamation include the law of libel, which applies to written statements, and the law of slander, which applies to spoken statements. A defamatory statement is a "substantially" false statement that causes damage to the reputation of another person or entity such as a corporation.

Ordinarily, defamatory statements transmitted through the Internet are governed by the law of libel rather than the law of slander because the statements are written. Although statements while in a chat room are written and, therefore, subject to the law of libel, they are transitory and spontaneous and, therefore, very similar to spoken words. Consequently, the law of slander may also apply. In a defamation lawsuit, the court will decide which laws apply.

Regardless of whether the law of libel or slander applies, these laws have not been changed for electronic communications. Therefore, if an electronic communication you wrote includes a defamatory statement about another person, you may be held liable for defamation.

Your electronics communications are subject to other laws as well. For example, you may be liable for violating trade secret laws if you communicate your company's proprietary information to individuals outside your company without your company's permission. You may also be liable for violation of state and federal laws if your electronic communications relate to or support illegal activities.

Q.: What if I want to download information from a Web site?

A.: You are always free to view content available at a Web site. You may not be free, however, to download (copy and/or print) or save this information. Some Web site operators will tell you what you can do and cannot do with the information that is available from their sites. In some cases, you may be asked to review a document while online and agree to the terms of use before you proceed to view the information. Although, in general, you need to obtain permission from the owner of the copyright in the materials you would like to use, it is possible your proposed use falls within a "fair use" exception, in which case you are not required to get the copyright owner's permission. If you are uncertain about whether you are free to use the material you would like to download, it is best to consult with a copyright law attorney who can advise you about your rights to download and use certain material.

Q.: What if I want to upload information to a Web site?

A.: If you are the original author or you have rights to the material you want to upload (add to an existing site), you are free to do so. For example, if you have some family photographs that you took, you are free to post them at your own Web site. However, if you are uncertain about who owns the material you would like to upload or whether your proposed use of the material falls within a "fair use" exception, it is best to consult with a copyright law attorney who can advise you about your rights to upload the material in question.

Q.: What if I want to make purchases or enter into online transactions?

A.: Online transactions are governed by contract law. Usually, the vendor defines the terms of the contract. The terms may be in a written agreement or they may be implied by conduct such as exchanging e-mail messages. Simple actions, such as completing an online order form at a Web site and providing a credit card number to pay for an item, may result in the formation of a contract. The contract is formed when the Web site accepts the order. Many Web vendors use "clickwrap" agreements that require a customer to review the terms of the agreement and select an option to agree or disagree before proceeding with the transaction.

Sales transactions, even those transactions completed online, are usually governed by state law. If the two parties to a transaction are from different states, the question arises as to which state's law should apply to the transaction. Many clickwrap agreements include "choice of law" provisions that determine which state's law applies to the transaction. Usually, the vendor's state law applies because the vendor is providing the clickwrap agreement. If the parties in a dispute have not agreed on a choice of law, the court will review the facts and circumstances of the transaction and select which state's law to apply.

Federal laws may also apply to certain online transactions. Some online vendors, such as banks, are subject to federal as well as state regulations. The court will determine whether state or federal law applies to a certain issue in a dispute that involves an online transaction.

Q.: What if I'm at work when I'm using the Internet or Web?

A.: Your employer has probably provided you with equipment for accessing the Internet and the Web so you can fulfill your job responsibilities. Therefore, your employer has the right to monitor and control your use of the equipment and your activities. Furthermore, employers must comply with federal and state workplace regulations. They have duties to protect their employees from certain actions and can be liable to their employees for failure to take precautions. For example, employers have a duty to protect employees from sexual harassment. Consequently, they can prohibit an employee's use of the Internet or Web sites to access or distribute unacceptable content.

Many employers today have an Internet use policy to inform their employees about what activities are permitted and what activities are prohibited. Most employers allow their employees to access the Internet for personal use as long as the use does not affect the performance of the employee's job, consume significant resources, or interfere with other employees' activities. Many employers do not regularly monitor their employees' Internet use, but will inform their employees that messages and communications may be viewed publicly and inadvertently disclosed. Therefore, the employees should not expect privacy when using the Internet at work. Check with your employer to find out whether an Internet use policy applies to your activities at work.

The information contained herein is general and should not be applied to specific legal problems without first consulting with one of our attorneys.

 
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