There are plenty of interesting things to do on the internet, whether you want to amuse yourself with some fun Google searches or keep yourself busy with that hard-to-kick Facebook addiction. But as you go about your business online, you may not realize that there are plenty of things that are now illegal on the internet — including a few things that you may have done online without thinking twice about it. Of course, most people haven’t accidentally threatened someone else online, or downloaded copyrighted material without realizing that they were in a legal gray area. But if you’re curious about which activities on the internet are really illegal, read on to learn more about the things that are now illegal on the internet and the laws that are relatively easy to break online.
1. Torrenting copyrighted material
Here’s one that may surprise you: torrenting itself is actually legal — as long as you aren’t downloading or uploading copyrighted material. But a lot of the data transferred via file-sharing tools and P2P networks is copyrighted material. And in that case, torrenting becomes one of the many things that are now illegal on the internet. It’s illegal to download or share a copyrighted movie, to share copyrighted songs with people who haven’t purchased them or to download them without purchasing them, or to share or download software or TV shows. You might not get caught, but downloading or uploading copyrighted material via a torrenting tool or website is illegal, and it’s always possible that you’ll get caught eventually.
2. Trolling in online communities
Trolls aren’t well-regarded on the internet, but according to a survey conducted by YouGov, they’re pretty common. More than a quarter of respondents admitted to starting arguments with strangers or posting, and a full 12% admitted to posting a comment that had to be removed by a moderator. But if you’re among those self-professed trolls, you might want to rethink your behavior online. Mark Wilson reports for FindLaw that while trolling itself doesn’t carry criminal sanctions under federal law (at least not federal law in the U.S.), trolling that turns into harassment, stalking, or bullying can definitely be a crime. Depending on the kinds of comments you post, you could be sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, or portrayal in a false light.
3. Cyberbullying via a social network
On a similar note, bullying someone on a social network is absolutely illegal. While this is more likely to happen among teens rather than adults, hear us out: You shouldn’t ever threaten or harass someone online. (And we hope that most people have enough common sense that they don’t need to see it on a list of things that are now illegal on the internet to realize that cyberbullying is a bad idea.) As per Title 18, Section 875, Subsection C of the United States Penal Code, “Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.” The clause applies to threats and harassment that happen online as well as via other modes of communication. The moral of the story? Don’t bully someone online, especially when the situation could be resolved by closing the laptop and walking away.
4. Recording a Skype call without consent
Recording a Skype call with a friend or a colleague may sound like a good idea, especially if you don’t want to have to take notes about the project you’re discussing. But in some states, recording private conversations without the consent of everyone involved is illegal. And posting a call online without consent could get you into even more trouble. It’s a good idea to learn about your state’s laws, and to always ask for permission before recording a call you make with Skype, Google Hangouts, or any of the other apps that enable you to make a voice or video call online.
5. Faking your identity online
Just about everybody uses fake names online, and there’s really no reason to use your legal name for most of the logins you have to create. But Daniel Horowitz reports for Complex that according to the intentionally vague “unauthorized access” clause of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, using a fake name online is technically illegal. While it’s unlikely that you’ll get in trouble with the law for using a fake name or a made-up username on your favorite websites, you’ll need to pay attention to the terms of service for the websites that you’re using. Facebook, for instance, is infamous for its real name policy, which requires Facebook members to use the same names they use in real life (with the recent addition of specific support for LGBTQ issues, non-Western names, and instances of stalking or abuse).
6. Using other people’s internet networks
Another surprising activity that numbers among things that are now illegal on the internet? Connecting to someone else’s Wi-Fi network, even if it’s unsecured and you can log on without a password. The same Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that makes it technically illegal to use a fake name online makes it very illegal to access someone else’s computer or network. While you probably won’t get arrested for using someone else’s Wi-Fi, there have been a few cases where people were arrested for using someone else’s internet network without permission. That just means there’s another reason to pay attention and protect yourself when you’re looking for free Wi-Fi.
7. Downloading and reusing copyrighted images
There’s a lot of confusion about how you can use images that you find online. Most people assume that when an image appears in their Google Image Search results, that means that they can download or use the image however they want to. But that’s not actually the case. As Karl Hodge reports for MacWorld, the creator of an illustration or photograph actually owns the copyright to the image, whether or not they have registered it with any organization or placed a warning on their website. Just because an image is online doesn’t mean that it’s in the public domain. Just downloading an image isn’t going to get you in trouble, but if you’re downloading an image with the intent of reusing it, you’ll need to obtain the rights from the copyright holder, or just find an image that you can use for free. Surprisingly, this means that even using a copyrighted video or image to create a GIF or a meme is technically illegal — though you’re pretty unlikely to get in trouble.