Illegal Things You Can’t Do On The Internet
When you’re setting up a website, especially the first time, your focus is probably on choosing a good hosting service, picking the right site template, and creating your content.
But online as in real life, there are legal considerations you need to keep in mind. To help you stay on the good side of your web host, ISP, and the courts, here are some basics about what’s legal, what’s clearly not, and what’s sketchy. As always, if you have specific questions you should consult with an attorney who specializes in online law.
If it’s illegal offline, it’s illegal online
For most of us, this goes without saying.
But, there are some people who get into legal trouble by treating the internet as fundamentally different from the rest of life. For example, Mike and Heather Martin of Maryland had a popular YouTube channel, DaddyOFive, that was described as family pranks but included videos of them screaming at and pushing their children. After other YouTubers complained, the couple lost custody of two of their five children.
Other clearly illegal content includes anything that libels another person and threats of violence. Most site owners have no intention of creating that kind of content. But sites with forums and comments sections have to stay vigilant to keep that type of content out of discussion threads to avoid violating libel laws as well as their web host and ISP’s terms of service.
Streaming videos and songs? Illegal if they’re pirated, with some hefty penalties ranging from ISP throttling and account closure to lawsuits by copyright holders. Even if the content is all yours, your web hosting service may not permit commercial video and audio streaming via their servers. Check your host’s terms of service and acceptable use policy (here’s a link to HostGator’s).
Other people’s words and pictures? Without their permission, it’s a copyright violation to use them on a website. Site owners found guilty of copyright violations can face fines up to $150,000 plus court costs. Jail time is also a possibility. On top of those consequences, Google penalizes sites that include content that’s “deliberately duplicated across domains,” which it describes as a deceptive practice.
Fraud, of course, is just as illegal online as off. Counterfeit goods, stores that steal payment data and don’t ship merchandise, and impersonating others in order to trick customers into buying from a site are all on the no-go list.
One category of impersonation that is legal is parody impersonation. Historically, parody and its close cousin satire are protected in the US by the First Amendment. This is why you can find things like the gloriously Photoshopped Instagram account of “Kirby Jenner, fraternal twin of Kendall Jenner” as well as countless openly fake Twitter accounts satirizing politicians, business leaders, and celebrities.
And finally, yes, spam emails are illegal and they have been since the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 became law. Violations can carry an $11,000 fine. Web hosts, ISPs, and email management services are usually quick to shut down spam sites and accounts.
Other questionable content
There’s another category of fakery that’s in the news a lot lately – fake news.
Although it may not be strictly illegal in the US (unless it’s also libelous), it undermines public discourse and has been implicated in election interference in the US and other countries. But site owners who hope to cash in by selling ads on fake news the way teenagers in Macedonia did before the 2016 election will be disappointed: Google and Facebook have both cracked down on fake news sites and ads in their networks.
Two other types of content that can get sites booted by their web host or ISP and possibly investigated by law enforcement are adult content and gambling. Both industries are heavily regulated, and violating state and federal obscenity or child-pornography laws can result in prosecution and prison time. Although some states opened up online gaming rules in recent years after federal law changes, the new presidential administration may reinstate a federal-level online gaming ban.
Where to find more legal information
Be sure to read your web host’s terms of service and acceptable use policy before you start adding content to your site. A typical acceptable use policy will require that your site activities be legal, not defame other people, and not be a platform for spam. In addition, your web host may prohibit commercial audio streaming, banking and trading activities, gambling, bitcoin mining, live video streaming, and other activities that fall into legal gray areas, require huge amounts of bandwidth, or both. Most web hosts reserve the right to shut down sites they deem “obscene, threatening, illegal” or in violation of their rules with no notice, so it’s important to understand those rules and boundaries up front.
For more general information, the Small Business Administration business law hub has articles on privacy, online business, marketing and advertising, and other areas of the law that may affect your site and your business. If you have questions that aren’t answered there, it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney who specializes in the type of business you plan to run online. This will cost you some money up front but could save you time, money and hassles once your site is up and running.
In general, if you run your site in an ethical way, you should be on the right side of the law. Still, read the fine print so you can get your site off to a legally sound start.