The Law Shop is now closed. Please click here to find out more.

IT and Online Law Advice

So much of people’s lives takes place online these days, it is no surprise that internet law should be a topic of ever-increasing importance. 

Since many of the opportunities and possibilities presented by the internet are absolutely unprecedented, the law constantly has to adapt to this digital frontier in order to fairly judge the legality of things which are done online. However, while web law may seem like a complicated topic, the principles at work are generally the same as in the legal regulations which came before the internet.

Website accessibility & the Disability Discrimination Act

If you are running a business which operates a service or sells a product online, one point you may not have taken into consideration is whether you could be affected by disability discrimination laws and accessibility regulations. Just as real-world businesses are obliged to provide disabled access to their physical locations, anyone operating an online business is required, under the Equality Act 2010 (which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995), to ensure that they make reasonable provisions which allow disabled individuals to make use of their service. Although it is not a topic which many have taken into account, some companies have been taken to court over cases where they have not made their websites accessible to disabled people.

The section of the Act which is important here involves improving accessibility for people with disabilities such as visual impairments or hearing difficulties. An example of accessibility for the former can be seen on the many sites which use a CAPTCHA system – a means of ensuring that a user is human, rather than a computer program designed to crawl the web. A CAPTCHA will often involve typing out a word which is distorted in such a way as to make it difficult to read for an automated system while still being legible to a human.

Obviously this could cause issues for a user with visual problems, who may be surfing the web with a device which reads the page content out loud. The accessibility solution which has been adopted involves providing an alternative method whereby a distorted word is read out loud, rather than the user needing to read it.

It is likely that when accessibility becomes more of a high priority issue, the definition used for whether websites are acceptable or not will be based on the W3C accessibility guidelines.

Online privacy issues

Privacy online is a complex issue which is often further complicated by the fact that many people are willing to share information. Especially when it comes to social networking, a large number of individuals willingly blur the line between reality and the internet without considering that comments and photographs posted to sites such as Facebook or Twitter are not necessarily secure. This means that many people expose themselves to unnecessary risk or danger.

An example would be the ability to “tag” people in photographs on Facebook. When you upload a photo to the site, it is possible to identify the individuals who feature in it, thus allowing anyone listed as their friend to see it. This means that people may be identified performing activities which they would not wish people such as their families or employers to see. Currently the laws surrounding these issues are hazy and hard to pin down, as the problems caused were not foreseen by the creators of the current laws. Photography in public places is not counted as an invasion of privacy and it can therefore make it difficult to keep one part of your life separate from another.

Other issues arise where privacy risks being breached by corporations running online sites or services, such as those who serve up advertising based on the searches a user conducts or the pages they visit online. This has been a contentious issue as many users may unknowingly opt in to such tracking through not realising that it is taking place. There is also the possibility of having this information spread around or even requested by the policy or other investigatory agencies if the individual is suspected of having committed a crime and they feel that evidence may be available through these means. This can give rise to many issues.

For more on the right to privacy under EU law, read our human rights law section.

Online security laws

With the amount of traffic on the internet increasing year on year, it is only natural that the importance of online interactions and transactions has seen an increase as well. Many people now conduct business online, whether this involves selling or buying products or services or other means of making a profit. Online banking is also tremendously popular, with a great number of individuals carrying out bank transfers or other such actions over the internet.

Of course, this gives rise to potential issues with regard to security. Where a person’s connection may be compromised, this can give rise to a variety of legal issues and problems.

There are a variety of ways in which one’s privacy or security can be compromised online. For example, the accident installation of malware (malicious software) or spyware on one’s computer may mean that unscrupulous individuals are able to track a user’s activity for untoward reasons. There is also the more conventional form of breaching security, known as “phishing”, which involves persuading an individual to part with their personal details by posing as a trusted site or organisation. This form of breaching security is legally considered as an act of fraud.

Under EU regulations, it is necessary to have safeguards in place to ensure that people’s privacy is not compromised through the unauthorised interception of internet traffic. However, the UK is currently considered to be breaking these regulations, as it has no independent organisation in place to ensure that people’s rights to privacy are not breached during online transactions or communication.

Problems have also arisen with regard to the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, permitting the interception of communications by a person with “reasonable grounds” to believe that consent was given. The EU has claimed that this is not good enough, but it is yet to be seen what will be done.

Online file sharing law

Copyright infringement is a topic which is not taken especially seriously by most people online. A lax attitude towards intellectual property has been present on the web ever since the earliest days of its popularity, with services such as Napster and LimeWire allowing internet users to redistribute copyrighted material with impunity, and, despite the best efforts of the music and film industries, illegal filesharing continues to this day in various forms.

The issue of illegal filesharing is one which is difficult to tackle for a number of reasons. First of all, it is difficult to track down the individuals involved, especially with more recent programs which enable the downloading of one file from many different people. Secondly, even when action is taken against one person, there are thousands more out there who are confident that they are unlikely to be caught. Attempts to take down entire filesharing services have succeeded at times, but more will inevitably spring up in their place with new exploits of legal loopholes and more advanced ways of getting around copyright law.

Nonetheless, filesharing is against UK law – namely, it places one in breach of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and the more recent Digital Economy Act. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act is the legislation which enables creators to copyright their work, which means that filesharing is illegal where the creator of the content has not given permission to freely share their work. The Digital Economy Act is designed to protect online businesses, and breaches of these regulations therefore arise where loss of revenues could result from copyrighted material being made freely available rather than purchased from internet retailers.

Another aspect of the Digital Economy Act which may have an effect on filesharing is that the onus is now on large ISPs to identify those who may be partaking in illegal downloading and take action against them. It has yet to be seen what effect this will have on the illegal filesharing scene.

For more details on copyright law, have a look at our intellectual property section.

Online Libel Law

Defamation and libel law is fairly well-known to many people, but many people do not consider that it can be applied to the internet. Such issues on the web can be complicated since, moreso now than ever, many of the communications in which people engage online are incredibly casual in nature. Most people do not consider that a Facebook posting or a blog comment would be held to the same standard as a news story or magazine article, but the truth is that the internet’s alleged anonymity is rarely a barrier to prosecution and the law does still apply.

Of course, complications arise when applying defamation laws to the internet. The viability of cases and the amount of compensation awarded in such claims does not revolve around how offensive a statement is, but rather the potential for damage done and loss on the part of the libelled individual. This means that simply lying about a person online is unlikely to bring grounds for a defamation case, unless the material in question has the potential to cause material loss.

The circumstances are complicated, though, by the fact that even statements made online in passing can be archived, sent around and viewed by a great deal of people, with the result that it can be hard to say whether a libel case can be won or not. The kind of comments that ten years ago would have been merely spoken are often nowadays posted to the web, where they can take on a life of their own.

When a newspaper or magazine publishes libellous content, compensation can even be claimed from the individuals or companies who distribute or sell the product, even if they had nothing to do with the defamatory content involved. Likewise, it has been known that the internet service provider (ISP) can be held responsible for content which they are hosting on their servers.

Other legal topics that may interest you