Logging On to the Law: Common Internet Issues

The Internet makes life easy, but it also provides countless new opportunities for thieves and scam artists. Here are some helpful tips as you surf the Web.

Identity Theft
Online identity theft is one of the nation’s fastest growing crimes. It has affected millions of people and cost businesses and industries billions of dollars.

Here are some tips designed especially for students from the Department of Education:

If you believe you are a victim of identity theft, take these steps immediately:

1. Call the three major credit bureaus, and ask for a “fraud alert” to be put on your file. Ask them to include messages on your credit report indicating that no new credit should be granted without your personal approval. The three major credit bureaus and their phone numbers are: Equifax, (800) 525-6285, Experian, (888) 397-3742 and Trans Union, (800) 680-7289.

2. Call your bank or credit card and close any accounts that may have been violated. If you want to open a new account, choose a non-obvious password and ask that it be required for any future changes to the account.

3. File a police report. You may need proof of the crime when dealing with creditors, so get a copy of the report, or the report number. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) collects information on ID theft. They can be helpful in solving the crime, and for providing advice. Call them at (877) ID-THEFT.

Copyright and Intellectual Property
Just because something is posted on the Internet doesn’t mean it can be downloaded and used for free or without permission. Artists, writers, musicians and web designers spend a lot of time creating their material, and while most of them want you to view the material on their website, they prefer that you not download it for use on your own website without permission.

From a legal standpoint, works are copyrighted when they are “fixed”; that is, when the idea is first set down in some tangible medium. The creator does not have to register his work to get copyright protection, that is automatic. In the United States, with some exceptions, copyright protection extends for 70 years beyond the death of the creator. When a copyright expires, the work is said to be “in the public domain.” This means you can use it without asking for permission. However, before doing so, check to make sure that you’re using the original edition and not some later edition that might still be under copyright. Some artists also permit use of their work with permission and credit, but you must have that permission first.

The US is a signatory to the Berne Copyright Convention, and will assist other countries in enforcing copyrights issued in those countries. Consequently, if you want to use material from a foreign website, you may probably assume it’s under copyright in that country, and that the copyright can still be enforced in the United States.

This protection also covers works you create. When you draw a picture, write a story or a paper, design a website, write a song or create anything that is copyrightable, you have the rights to control how and when your creation is used. If someone uses your work without permission, you have the right to tell him to stop or face legal action. For more information, please see the U.S. government’s copyright website at www.copyright.gov.

Copyright also covers “derivative” works, or works based on a copyrighted original. Thus, you cannot make changes to an original without the copyright owner’s permission. For example, you may not make a digital copy of a song under copyright and make your own mix.

Downloading copyrighted material such as songs or movies is illegal, even if you own a fixed copy on CD or DVD. Many people have been sued for downloading such media, and you can face criminal penalties.

The copyright law in the US also makes a provision for “fair use.” This means that you may use small portions of a copyrighted work without permission. You may use small portions for academic research, scholarly criticism and classroom use.

There is a collection of media that is either free to use or has minimal restrictions. Creative Commons operates under the principle that information should be shared, and that creators should decide what rights they’re willing to give up and which they want to keep. Artists who post their works at the Creative Commons website will generally allow you to use them with minimal restrictions: Visit www.creativecommons.org.

Online Privacy
Thanks to the Internet, it’s possible to instantly share thoughts, photos and videos. Setting up an account takes just a few minutes, and once complete, your material is there for anyone to see and discuss, and then share with more people.
Some employers search for information about the people they’re considering hiring to try to get a sense of the candidate’s character. Some companies also do routine searches to see what’s being said about them.

Unfortunately for you, anything posted on the Internet is fair game. Anyone can find your personal website or blog or social networking page and leave cruel or inappropriate comments or make judgments based on what you or others post.

Things you can do to keep this from happening to you:

Cyber-bullying means using electronic communications like the Internet to harass, stalk or annoy. Some states and schools are launching anti-bullying initiatives to stop this crime.

Anyone who sends a message with the intent to harass, stalk or annoy a victim faces a fine or imprisonment.

Experts recommend these strategies for preventing harassment:

You may also want to delete social networking profiles, or make them private. You can also block the person harassing you from your e-mail and social networking profiles
If someone starts harassing you through email, instant messenger, cell phone text messaging or some other electronic channel, keep these messages and log your chats. They may help police track the person harassing you. You can also forward these messages to the person’s internet service provider (ISP) for investigation of abuse. The ISP may terminate the person’s account, or they may contact the police on your behalf
If the person harassing you takes the harassment off-line by contacting you
by phone or in person, contact the police. Save any messages. Keep a log of times and dates when the person contacted you. If the person contacts your friends, family or employer, ask them to keep notes on when the person made the contacts and what was said

Hackers Beware
The computer age has brought at least six new third degree felonies to the Pennsylvania Crimes Code. The relatively new laws make it illegal to use a computer to access other computers with the intent of disrupting the normal functioning of that computer or to use the computer to defraud or deceive. The new laws specifically prohibit using a computer to disrupt other services, stealing data from another computer, the unlawful duplication of data belonging to another and the distribution of computer viruses. The Code even recognizes the new crime of computer trespass, which is entering the computer of another to remove, erase or alter data, programs or software; to cause the other computer to malfunction; or to alter a financial instrument or an electronic funds transfer.