Most sites don’t try to break the law. Only a few actively make an effort to violate any kind of law and most of those are generally shut down fairly quickly, either by aggressive hosts or, in worst-case scenarios, law enforcement.
But this doesn’t mean everyone is perfect either. Most sites, at the very least, bend the law and sometimes outright break it.
This isn’t because they are run by bad people but because of the nature of the law itself. Sometimes it’s poorly-written law that is almost impossible to not break (at least technically) and sometimes it’s lack of knowledge about the law itself.
So what are some of the ways you’re probably breaking the law online? There are too many to choose from but here are five you should definitely take a look at.
1. Copyright Infringement
Most legal experts agree that copyright law is a pervasive and confusing law that is almost impossible to not run afoul of at least some. Couple that with widespread misinformation and ignorance about the law and you have a recipe by which nearly every blogger, even the ones who aren’t spammers and scrapers, probably have done something infringing.
A common problem area is images on your site. If you use Google Image Search to find photos and artwork to go with your posts, you’re almost certainly infringing, unless you only look at correctly licensed works. However, even if you are careful to only look for licensed stock photos or Creative Commons images, you may still run afoul of the law if the person who offered it to you either misled you or didn’t verify who owned it.
The Impact: Sites that intentionally infringe copyright get shut down all the time, those who do so accidentally rarely face any serious consequences. Generally, the application of the law does a good job of separating the intentionally infringing from the accidental cases. Still, it’s important to try and make sure you’re on the right side as much as possible as it only takes one angry copyright holder to ruin your site.
2. TOS Violations
If you have a website, that means you have a hosting provider and, as such, you agreed to a terms of service to set up your account.
If you actually read through your TOS, which few people do, there’s a lot of stuff in there that might seem insane. You’ll find that your “unlimited account” is very much limited, that there are certain types of content you can’t host and certain kinds of apps you can’t run.
What those limitations are varies from company to company, but considering that those rules bar copyright infringing materials (see above), defamatory speech and, possibly, otherwise legal adult content, there’s a very good chance you’ve broken your TOS at least a few times.
The Impact: Realistically, minor TOS violations only seem to come up when the host is unhappy about something else. If your site is using a lot of bandwidth or you’ve been a problem customer with billing, these issues are often raised as an excuse to ditch you as a customer.
3. False WHOIS Information
When you signed up for your domain, you were asked to provide information for the Whois database. This is because ICANN, the organization that oversees the domain name system requires it from all registrars (Godady, Network Solutions, etc.) to obtain information from those who register domains.
Though some offer domain privacy services, which do appear to be allowed under the law (as long as the contact information reaches you) many people don’t do that and then either falsify information to avoid leaking personal info or just enter false info for data they don’t have (IE: Fax number).
This is a violation of the terms of your domain and could, at least theoretically, result in your domain being revoked.
The Impact: ICANN has a way you can report false Whois information. However, few people use it unless there is some preexisting reason to want a site shut down, such as illegal content. Very few domains are actually revoked on these grounds, though it does happen.
4. Privacy Laws
Though you probably don’t really care what your visitors are doing after they leave your site and have no interest in tracking them, what about your analytics plugins? You social networking tools? Your plugins?
Your site most likely leaves cookies in your visitor’s browser. This is for everything from site customization to statistics tracking. However, rules about when and how you can track people vary and recent rules in the EU require informed consent before the use of such cookies.
However, don’t feel too bad about violating the law in this area, some 99% of UK government sites are in violation too.
The Impact: Enforcement of this law is almost nil and it’s unclear what the effective punishment would be if there were an effort to enforce it, especially for webmasters outside of the EU. Still, probably wise to stick to the mainstream analytics and social networking providers, though even that isn’t always safe.
5. Adult/Offensive/Hate Content
Most people think that, as long as they avoid pornographic content, they probably are safe from a content standpoint. While that’s probably fairly safe in the U.S., what about other countries?
Obscenity laws vary wildly from country to country. There’s even blasphemy and/or “religious insult” laws on the books of many nations including Greece, Germany and even Canada, just to name a few.
What’s seen as perfectly reasonable speech in one country is often considered a criminal violation in another and it’s not always nations with overly oppressive regimes and kings who can’t be insulted.
The Impact: In most “western” nations these laws are rarely enforced and they would only realistically impact you if you visited these other nations. That being said, many sites are banned and blocked on these grounds so people in nations where your speech is illegal may not be able to view your site.
So there you have it, five ways that any law-abiding Web citizen can be, and likely is, breaking the law. Sure these might be technicalities but they all have one thing in common: At least one blogger has been sued, arrested or otherwise punished for breaking these rules without realizing it.
So, it’s important to be aware of these issues and to do your best to avoid them.
That being said, they might not be completely avoidable so, while you should do your best, you can’t let yourself get broken up over every minor misstep. With so many conflicting laws on this planet, you’ve certainly broken a few and, in truth, you probably didn’t even realize you had done it.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for The Blog Herald. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.