While we love to get caught up in the details of lawsuits and specific legal issues, it’s helpful every now and again to step back and realize just how vast the world of the internet and the law is. Thus, I give you a general list of topics that relate to the legal environment of the internet generally — and some notes on where social media issues tie in.
- Contract formation and validity (was a contract “signed” when it was attached to an e-mail that contained the phrase “I agree”? How do we piece together tweets or text messages to prove that a contractual relationship did or did not exist?)
- Intellectual property (if you obtain common law rights to a trademark for an online store, how far geographically do those rights extend? What happens when a European firm and an American firm independently adopt trademarks on the same day but end up competing against one another online? Can you use Madonna’s face as your Facebook profile picture? Is it okay to create a website mocking a famous brand?)
- Jurisdiction (I tweet about you in Ohio. The tweets are read by you in Montana. You live in China. Where can I be sued?)
- Free speech (and its limiters — like defamation, invasion of privacy, regulation of hate speech, regulation of pornographic speech, etc.)
- Access (what rights do you have to gain access to the Internet? Do you have a right to access at a certain data speed?)
- Domain name ownership
- Criminal prosecution
- Employment law (can your employer force you to turn over your Facebook password if you access Facebook on a company computer? What regulations apply if you work virtually for an overseas company?)
- Property law (does someone “trespass” on your computer if they hack into it using virtual means?)
- Privacy rights (are there basic online privacy rights you should have against private companies, regardless of the language in privacy policies? How far can the government reach into your online activity without a warrant?)
- Liability for third party activity (e.g., in the US, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides protection for websites that allow users to post content, but do not have a practice of editing or creating that content)
Many of these issues are not new to society — property rights, contract disputes and the like have been around since the dawn of organized societies — but they do require new ways of evaluating legal tests and boundaries.
Not too much of a soapbox here — just wanted to create general awareness of the very vast set of legal issues that are intertwined with living, working and playing online.