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Good Citizen, Unmeaning Criminal

written by: •edited by: Brian Nelson•updated: 4/13/2009

Every internet user will at sometime or other be tempted to inadvertently break the law online. Let’s try to avoid the most common instances.

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    The internet is a wonderful tool. We get a lot of joy from the relationships, business transactions and fun things we do online. While we are having fun and enjoying profits, we need to be mindful of situations where we don’t intend to break the law but can. The following situations can be considered by some internet users as ‘no big deal’ but in reality can be illegal activity and bring law enforcement to your house. To avoid these situations, try to imagine them in the everyday world and give the internet and other internet users the same respect you want in your everyday life.

    • Accessing another person’s email account for whom you aren’t responsible for their personal safety or actions (such as children or employees) without their permission. This could be a practical joke (sometimes by children) to impress peers with computer hacking skills. It could be malicious intent if the person accessing the email account assumes the identity of the account holder. In either case, this is against American law.
    • Accessing an electronic network without the permission of the owner is illegal. This includes: using the bandwidth of a neighbor’s internet access because you aren’t paying for the service; or proving to the owner of the network that their network is insecure by circumventing their security without their permission.
    • A person has a high-speed connection at a hotel and opens the network browser list. Being curious, the person clicks on an unfamiliar icon to see what happens or is just trying to find a valid connection. If the network has limited security, does not require logon info, and has network file sharing enabled, personal files to the network can be accessed. Even though the person did not look around, disturb or change any files, this can be a violation of law for computer intrusion. Just because the files were easily accessible doesn’t mean it is legal to access them.

    The following are examples of piracy, the illegal distribution of copyrighted material.

    • You make copies of music, photos, movies, books or any copyrighted material you legally bought on removable media or as a download and then distribute the material (regardless whether you receive compensation or not) to persons who are not in your household through removable media, email, file-sharing network, the internet or a text messaging service. Remember that by forwarding an email or an email attachment you are sending a copy not the original.
    • You join a file-sharing network and download unauthorized copies of copyrighted material (music, pictures, confidential information) from the computers of other network members. Taking copies you didn’t pay for is stealing. Taking copies of confidential information or any copyrighted material without permission is stealing.
    • You pay a fee to gain access to download files from a file-sharing network that is not authorized to distribute or make copies of the copyrighted material.
    • You install software for the first time on your computer that the copyright holder hasn’t distributed or supported for more than five years.
    • Friends are playing a practical joke on a classmate or coworker by ridiculing them at a website or sending text messages at all hours to consistently annoy. You know this is wrong but don’t want to look bad to your friends or coworkers. So, you join in instead of telling the principal, boss, or parents. This is cyberbullying. It is not different than bullying someone in the schoolyard or office, or constantly ringing their doorbell or phone without identifying yourself.
    • A friend asks for help to change their grade in the school computer because they failed a class and now they can’t participate in sports or be graduated with their class. If you help them change their grade you are breaking the law by accessing a computer network without permission and altering information.
    • Copying, sending, forwarding, or mailing pornographic pictures or text of children to anyone (including law enforcement or the abuse department of your internet service provider) is illegal. Sending or receiving child pornography by anyone in the USA is illegal.
    • Any gambling or wagering online is illegal in the USA. This applies to all online gambling including virtual card games, sports events, offshore casinos, and para mutual betting. Fantasy leagues are legal in the USA. Read about this from the FBI.
    • You are monitoring the activities of someone you are not legally responsible for (such as an estranged spouse) on a computer you don’t own.