State & Federal Laws for Internet Privacy & Safety

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States and the federal government have laws that protect individuals' privacy and safety on the Internet. Some of these laws are designed to protect private information that a person does not wish to disclose to anyone else. Other laws are designed to protect information that is disclosed only to a website but not intended to be distributed to third parties.

Public Disclosure of Private Facts

  • A state may punish an Internet user for "public disclosure of private facts". This occurs when someone has disclosed private information about another person in a manner that a reasonable person would consider to be objectionable. For example, if a person were to hack into the computer files of another person and publish them on the Internet for everyone to see, then the hacker could be found liable for disclosing these facts. However, if the information is of public interest or was obtained from a public figure (i.e. politician), then the person suing must prove the information was false and the defendant knew it was false or recklessly disregarded the truth.

Intrusion Upon Seclusion

  • A state also may punish an Internet user for intrusion upon seclusion. This occurs when someone has infringed upon the privacy of an individual in a manner that a reasonable person would consider objectionable. For example, if a person secretly installed a video camera inside someone else's home without the owners' permission so he could look inside. That person would be liable under this law. As with public disclosure of private facts, a person suing must in certain circumstances show with sufficient proof that the information was false and that the defendant knew it was false or recklessly disregarded the truth.

Privacy Policy

  • If a website has a privacy policy, then it must abide by three rules in dealing with user information. First, it must reveal what information the website can gather from the user. Second, it must correctly and completely reveal the information it gathers, and third, it must show how it handles such information. As of September 2009, the federal government has no law that requires websites to have privacy policies, but some states, such as California, do.

COPPA

  • In order to protect children, Congress has passed the "Children's Online Privacy Protection Act." Under this law, websites are prohibited from collecting information from persons under 18 that could personally identify them without parental consent. Furthermore, under this law, parents can have the option of letting their children use the website without having to disclose the children's information.

Child Porn

  • States and the federal government may regulate certain types of child pornography. In Aschroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that virtual depictions of underage persons engaging in sexual conduct on the internet is free speech protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the visual depictions of underage persons engaging in sexual conduct is not considered protected speech and may be prohibited by the government. In response to this ruling, Congress passed the "Protect Act", which prohibited the possession and/or production of child porn, as well as the "pandering" of such material. For example, a person who tells another in a chat room that he has child porn and wants to sell it may be prosecuted under the law. The Supreme Court upheld this law in 2008.

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