This page is a guide to federal laws about the internet. Your state may provide additional protections in some of these areas, so be sure to check your state’s laws here. (For California see our combined federal & state guide here) And as always, speak to a lawyer before taking any major actions (or decisions not to act) based on this information.
KEY LAWS TO KNOW ABOUT USING THE INTERNET, EMAIL, AND SOCIAL MEDIA IN THE U.S.
Spam/Junk email: Companies or organizations may not send you deceptive or abusive commercial emails.1CAN SPAM Act, 15 U.S. Code Chapter 103
Can a company or organization send me unsolicited emails?
They CAN send you unsolicited commercial email, but the email must:
- identify that the message is an advertisement
- include a valid, physical address of the sender
- provide a way to easily opt-out of future emails (like an “unsubscribe” link). Once you opt-out, they can’t email you again unless you explicitly give them permission.2CAN SPAM Act, 15 U.S. Code Chapter 103
2. Social Media & Employers
Is my employer allowed to restrict my right to use my personal social media on my own time?
In some ways, yes. If you complain about your employer on Facebook, etc., they may be able to legally fire you. But you DO have the right to use social media for the purpose of getting coworkers to join together to address work-related issues and share information about pay, benefits, and working conditions.3National Labor Relations Act
NOTE: This applies whether you are in a union or not.
3. Making threats on social media
It is illegal to use social media to make a serious threat to harm or kidnap another person. The penalty is up to 5 years in prison.418 U.S. Code Sec 875(c) But the person making the threat must actually intend it as a threat, rather than simply “expression.”
4. Privacy and the Internet/Social Media
What is “revenge porn”? and is it illegal?
Revenge porn is when you agree to have someone take nude pictures of you, where you have an understanding that the photos will remain private, but later that person posts the photos online (or otherwise send them to people), intending to cause you emotional harm. It is now illegal in 24 states and counting.
Can someone post a picture of me that I don’t like?
It depends on the state, but generally if you are in a public place, people have the right to take photos of you and use them for noncommercial purposes. The definition of what is public vs private gets very context specific. But whether in public or not, if someone tries to make money from a photo of you without getting your consent, then you can probably sue them for that.
Privacy for children under the age of 13
Websites that get any information from children under 13 must:5Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, found at U.S. Code Title 15, Section 6501
- notify parents directly before collecting personal data from children, and obtain their consent (parent can stop consenting any time)
- implement procedures to protect kids’ personal info
SEE MORE ABOUT PRIVACY LAW
5. Jamming wi-fi or cell
It is illegal for any person or company to jam, block, or interfere with another’s Wi-fi or cell signal.647 U.S.C. Sec 333, also see FCC’s jammer enforcement
You have the right to protection against stalking and cyberstalking that makes you fear for your life or health. The police have an obligation to investigate any such stalking, and if they find a credible threat, to prosecute the offender. (Unfortunately, if the offender lives outside the U.S., there is little law enforcement can do at this time).718 U.S. Code Sec 2261A
7. Copyright & the Internet
Do I have rights to content I create and put on the internet or social media?
In general, yes. Copyright law applies fully to the internet, but it does get tricky, particularly for social media. The original content you create and post on the internet and social media, including blog posts, status updates that you write*, or photos/videos that you have taken or created**, is generally your property and you own the copyright. This means you get to decide what to do with the content, and what others do or don’t do with it.
*Writings need to be a substantial length to be given copyright protection. There is no exact number of characters or words to qualify; a tweet probably is too short, but it’s not impossible to copyright a tweet.
**You generally own a photo when you have pressed the button to take the photo. It doesn’t matter if you are in the photo or not. However, make sure the subject matter of the photo doesn’t violate privacy law.
Can I post someone else’s picture, video, or writing on my social media?
Simply retweeting/clicking “share” under a Facebook post is most likely fine, as it can be implied that the creator granted permission by putting it on social media (and many social media Terms of Service say that by posting something, a user grants others a license to share it).
But if someone has NOT put their work on social media, you should probably not do it for them. You can’t use someone else’s content without their permission, unless it falls under “fair use.” If you can’t get the creator’s permission, stating who created the work (“attribution”) and linking to the creator’s website is a very good idea. Although even doing this, your post could still violate the creator’s rights. But it’s up to the creator of the content to decide whether to enforce their rights.
What should I do if I see a website stealing my copyrighted material?
You have the right to require that any website that displays your copyrighted materials without your permission quickly remove it from the site.8Digital Millennium Copyright Act When do I “own” material?
To get your copyrighted material taken down from a website, you simply need to send the website or host of the website a “DMCA Takedown Notice.” See here for details on takedown notices.
Help! I think I’ve been hacked! What do I do?
If you have evidence of a hacking and can identify who did it (or is continuing to do it), the law allows you to get authorities to take immediate action to disable the hacker.9Computer Fraud & Abuse Act Contact local law enforcement or the Internet Criminal Complaint Center (see below).
9. Online shopping
Shipping time: When you buy something on the internet, the seller must ship the goods within the time frame it gives you (or within 30 days), otherwise you have the right to cancel the purchase. 10Federal Trade Commission rule found at Code of Federal Regulations, Title 16, Part 435
Cybersquatting is when someone buys a domain name that is the same or similar to someone else’s trademark, for the purpose of taking financial advantage of that trademark. Find out more here.
11. User generated content
Is a website (like facebook) legally responsible for the comments or posts that other people make?
Generally, no, a website, social media, or other online platform would probably not be held liable for posts, comments, etc by its users which may violate various laws.11Communications Decency Act Section 230 For example, if someone posts illegal threats of violence, or defamatory statements, the website or other online platform would generally not be liable for these.
Specifically with regard to users’ violations of intellectual property, such as copyright or trademark, the website would be protected as long as it complies with DMCA takedowns (see above for more).
EXERCISE YOUR RIGHTS
- If you believe you have been hacked, contact local law enforcement (use non-emergency number unless your physical safety is at risk) and/or file a complaint with the Internet Criminal Complaint Center
- File a complaint about wi-fi or cell signal jamming
- Find a social media lawyer, privacy lawyer, or copyright lawyer
- If you are a victim of stalking or cyberstalking, you can report it to local police or to the Department of Justice.
- If the product you bought online didn’t ship when the seller said it would, file a complaint here.
- File a complaint about spam email here.
References [ + ]
|1, 2.||↑||CAN SPAM Act, 15 U.S. Code Chapter 103|
|3.||↑||National Labor Relations Act|
|4.||↑||18 U.S. Code Sec 875(c)|
|5.||↑||Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, found at U.S. Code Title 15, Section 6501|
|6.||↑||47 U.S.C. Sec 333, also see FCC’s jammer enforcement|
|7.||↑||18 U.S. Code Sec 2261A|
|8.||↑||Digital Millennium Copyright Act|
|9.||↑||Computer Fraud & Abuse Act|
|10.||↑||Federal Trade Commission rule found at Code of Federal Regulations, Title 16, Part 435|
|11.||↑||Communications Decency Act Section 230|