The WWW in a URL used to be thought of as an abbreviation for “Wild Wild West” when it came to legality. But the law is finally catching up to many of the ways people and companies can harm or take unfair advantage of others online. Current laws protect against deceptive or abusive emails, online privacy violations, online copyright infringement, and much more.
Knowing the basics of what you or your business legally can and can’t do online can help you avoid a lawsuit or government enforcement action, saving you lots of money, time, and stress. But you also have rights that can help you protect yourself from other businesses or individuals from taking financial advantage of your efforts.
The following tips are based on a legal guide from Law Soup, a site I founded where you can find tips on many other areas of law. If you think you are violating any of the following laws but aren’t sure, or if you believe someone else is violating your rights, you should speak to an attorney who specializes in internet law.
1. Sending unsolicited emails
It’s generally legally acceptable to send unsolicited commercial email to people, as long as it isn’t deceptive or abusive, and you include three things in the email: (1) identify that it is an advertisement, (2) include your physical address, and (3) include an easy opt-out or “unsubscribe” link.
2. False or misleading advertising on the internet
You may already know you can’t engage in false or misleading advertising, but did you know that even “liking” a user’s misleading Facebook comment could be seen as legally the same as if the comment came from your business? One pharmaceutical company recently got in trouble for doing just that.
4. Blocking your internet access
Have you ever gone to a hotel and tried doing some work using your personal wi-fi hotspot (usually from your cell phone company), but the hotspot doesn’t work, so then you have to pony up around $10+ for hotel internet? It may be because the hotel blocked your hotspot, which is illegal. A Marriott hotel recently got in serious trouble for this. Nobody can block another person’s wi-fi hotspot.
5. Copyright on the internet
Most things you or your employees create and post online, such as writings, art, or photos are your intellectual property and others may not use them without your permission. Obviously you also can’t just copy this work created by others. A quick way to force websites to take down your materials is to send them a “DMCA Takedown Notice” which you can find out more about here.
Sharing a post on social media or linking to a page is not considered copyright infringement, and most content creators obviously want people doing this anyway!
If you have evidence that you were hacked 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. Contact local law enforcement and/or the Internet Criminal Complaint Center.
Almost all states also require you to notify users when their personal information was stolen in a hack or data breach. See your state’s requirements here.
7. Online sales
If you sell products on the internet, you must ship the goods within the time frame you state (or within no more than 30 days), otherwise the customer has the right to cancel the purchase. But aside from legality, it’s also bad customer service to promise something and not deliver (no pun intended).
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. For example, buying the domain “campbells.com” to get web traffic from people looking for the soup brand would be cybersquatting. It is illegal unless it is done for non-commercial purposes, such as political activism. The penalty for cybersquatting involves potentially millions of dollars in fines.
For citations and more on these laws, check out Law Soup’s guide to internet/social media laws.