Internet Law

Internet law is a broad category that includes all laws related to the use of the internet, from privacy and copyright laws to criminal laws. The internet revolutionized communication, information, private data, learning, and more, which has created an abundance of new legal issues.

What is Internet Law?

The term internet law refers to any laws that relate to online activities and content. Many laws relevant to the internet predate it. Other laws have passed since the internet came into existence and addressed new concerns that it raises. Laws concerning internet activities include those at both the federal and state level.

Who Regulates the Internet?

Regulation of the internet has been subject to debate since the early days of the web. The internet can seem like a lawless place, and in some ways, it is. But many laws apply to online activities.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the primary government agency that regulates communications and media.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) protects consumers, which often includes internet activities. It regulates online advertising and marketing as part of this protection. This includes rules about email spam, business opportunities, special offers, credit and billing, endorsements, and more.[1]

How exactly the Internet should be regulated, and if it should, is still hotly debated. Because of the constitutional right to free speech in the U.S., regulating content online is limited. Examples of regulated content include laws that prohibit certain types of content, like child pornography or content related to fraud.

Important Internet Laws

Many of the laws enacted before and since the beginning of the internet age are federal. States also have laws related to internet use, especially those that address privacy online.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act

These two laws are particularly important to internet users because they prohibit things like hacking and fraud, issues so prevalent on the internet. The laws help protect against identity theft because they involve accessing and misusing private information.

The Communications Decency Act

Only Section 230 of this 1996 law is still valid and relevant to the internet. It protects websites that have comment sections from liability related to users. For instance, if you defame someone in the comments section on YouTube, you may face a negligence lawsuit, but the victim cannot sue the website.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Passed in 1998, this law governs how you can use copyrighted content online. It protects content creators from having their works stolen and misused. It also protects website owners, limiting their liability when their users infringe copyrights.

The Patriot Act

This anti-terrorism law covers a lot of ground, including issues related to internet users. It allows the federal government to gather information about your communications in the name of national security. It raises many issues of privacy rights.

Anti Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act

This law prevents the purchasing of domain names only to use them for profit. For instance, someone may buy domain names that apply to your business and then try to extort you to repurchase them. This is illegal.

States also have their own laws regarding important internet issues, especially those related to privacy. For instance, most states prohibit the posting of pornographic images without permission, often known as revenge porn. Many states also have some protections against cyberbullying.[2][3]

Other Laws That Apply to Internet Use

There is also a lot of overlap between the modern issues of using the internet and pre-existing laws. Several areas of law apply in certain situations online:

  • Defamation. Written, published information online can be considered libel.
  • Discrimination and civil rights. Laws that protect civil rights and prevent discrimination can apply online. Online discrimination against a protected class is illegal.
  • Employee rights and labor laws. Many people use the internet for work or even work entirely online. Any issues of labor and employee rights that arise online can be addressed through the applicable laws.
  • Ethics and professional responsibility. When professionals work online, they are still held to high standards of individual responsibility and codes of ethics.
  • Intellectual property. Laws regarding copyrights, trademarks, and patents are important online. Content can be misused online, triggering laws that protect the work, brands, and ideas of individuals and companies.
  • International law. Regulating internet activities is especially difficult because there are no borders. International laws may be applicable in some online situations.
  • Medical malpractice. With the rise in telemedicine, healthcare workers can be held liable for damages resulting from bad advice or mistreatment of patients online.
  • Sexual harassment. Illegal sexual harassment can occur online as well as in-person, and the same laws apply.

Business Owners and Internet Law

Nearly every business now has an online presence, which means business owners must be aware of the laws and regulations that apply and abide by them. To avoid legal problems, business owners need to know about guidelines and laws related to:

  • Protecting customer data and privacy online
  • Defamation
  • Use of domain names
  • Truth in marketing and advertising
  • Use of intellectual property
  • Professional ethics
  • Terms and conditions
  • Collecting taxes
  • Shipping restrictions

Internet law is a vast, broad, and confusing area of the law. If you have questions or concerns about how the laws apply to your business or a current situation, talk to an expert. Lawyers specializing in online business, privacy, and crimes can help you.

  1. Federal Trade Commission. (2000, December). Advertising and Marketing on the Internet: Rules of the Road.
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  2. Greenberg, P. (2019, August). Fighting Revenge Porn and ‘Sextortion.’ National Conference of State Legislatures.
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  3. National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020, January 27). State Laws Related to Internet Privacy.
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