The Internet: what you need to know and where you stand legally

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the October 9, 2007 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

3 Separate areas:

  • The Internet and your children
  • Conducting business online
  • What you can and cannot put on a website

The Internet and your children

It’s a given - your children are going to be online, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, there are things you can do to keep them safe.

Instruct your children:

  • to never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online.
  • to never upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the Internet or an online service to people they do not personally know.
  • to never give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name, or telephone number.
  • to never download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance there could be sexually explicit images.
  • to never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing.
  • that whatever they are told online may or may not be true.

Conducting business online

  • Use extreme caution when revealing any of your personal identification information on the Internet; look for the yellow "lock" symbol in your browser window to ensure the site is secure.
  • Consider using an alternate disposable e-mail account, like Yahoo or Hotmail, for transactions you complete over the Internet. Use this alternate account instead of your personal e-mail account in order to keep your identity more secure.
  • Use encryption technology when possible for transmitting personal information over the Internet (encryption technology scrambles the information you enter and is used by many Internet browsers).
  • Install and keep your virus software up-to-date.
  • Avoid storing personal information on your computer.
  • Never send any personal information in an e-mail. THEY ARE NOT SAFE.

Identity theft online

Identity theft occurs when someone uses personal information like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number to commit fraud. Identity thieves try to trick you into giving them information by using highly sophisticated e-mails which appear to come from banks, insurance companies, Internet service providers, auction sites, and other kinds of websites. These e-mails, which may even look like real e-mails from the company or its actual website, ask for your personal information in order to "verify" accounts or "clear up" errors that have occurred.

Legitimate businesses do not ask for Social Security numbers or bank account numbers on the Internet. Do not respond to such e-mails and do not click on any links they contain. If you wish to check with the company, type the address of the website into your own computer or telephone your question.

The law gives you specific rights when you believe you are the victim of identity theft, including the right to have nationwide credit reporting agencies place a fraud alert notice in your file, the right to receive two free file disclosures per year, and the right to obtain documents relating to the fraudulent transactions. You can also block credit reporting and collection activity for fraudulent transactions that result from identity theft.

If you believe someone has used your personal identifying information to obtain credit in your name, you should:

(a) file a police report about the events.
(b) contact the creditor to request more information and copies of       documents about the fraudulent transaction, enclosing a copy       of the police report.
(c) send the national Consumer Reporting Agencies a copy of the      police report and request that they block all reporting about      the transaction.

The creditor and the national Consumer Reporting Agencies have a very limited time to respond to your requests (generally 15 days after you send them a police report of identity theft) and may ask for only limited supporting documents before blocking the item. For example, you may be asked to sign a statement under oath (an "affidavit") explaining what happened.

Free speech on the web - what you can and cannot say or post

The easy answer is that in many cases a statement about someone or a business that is made on a website is viewed under traditional libel, slander, and defamation standards.

Usually a negative statement of opinion about someone or a business does not give rise to any legal action. In addition, keep in mind that a website cannot be sued for posting the opinions of someone else in an open forum. So if Joe Smith goes on a public forum and says that you are a miserable human being, there is nothing you can do. The statement is too general and is a matter of opinion.

Conversely, if that same person in the same forum says that you are a criminal or a child molester, that IS actionable. It is no longer a matter of opinion or a general statement.

Use of pictures or graphics from websites:

Bottom line—give credit where credit is due. Ask for permission to post a link. If you are using a photo from a website, you generally must get permission from the owner. The only exception to this is the Fair Use doctrine which says photos and graphics may be reproduced for fair use in an educational setting. Unless you are a student and are using a picture for ONE assignment that will stay within the class, this probably will not apply to you.

Unless there is a clear statement that art, photos, and text are "public domain" and available for free use, the best policy is to assume that they are copyrighted and should not be taken and used for re-publication on a local area network, a wide area network, or a website.

Internet pirates argue that work is not copyrighted unless there is a clear notice on the website. This simply is not the case. Copyright law protects work even if no papers have been filed with the government.

Most people agree that students may use these items for school reports, but some companies are extremely aggressive about their icons and logos. They do not take kindly to abusive use of their company images. Caution is advised.

If permission is granted, the best policy is to provide a credit line near the item or at the bottom of the page.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Posting something on the Internet is essentially the same thing as shouting it in a town square. It is a public domain. You should assume that anyone will be able to have access to it.
  • When downloading music, movies, videos, etc. make sure you are doing it from a reputable source.
  • Parents should keep the computer in a common room such as a family room or living room so that they are able to monitor the child’s online activity. Make sure that you have parental controls and blocking software installed.
  • Check your child’s online account and check his/her e-mails. Always monitor chat room use heavily; this is where most of the problems occur.

As always, if you have had any problems or wish to speak with an attorney regarding internet laws, please contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at (412) 261-5555.