One of the great things about the Internet is how it makes us feel. It can easily seem like the Web is a secure, anonymous and inviting place that enables you to either get in touch with your closest friends or reach out to an audience of millions.
The Internet is home to YouTube, the site where anyone can be a TV/movie star, Facebook, the world’s largest social structure ever created and Twitter, where instant feedback and updates is the norm.
The Internet can be an inviting place and, if you’re running a blog or other website, you’ve obviously felt that call and decided to to carve out your own corner of it.
But the warm and fuzzy feelings need to be mixed with a healthy dose of caution and concern. While the Internet can be a very inviting place and definitely has many great things going for it, it also is home to some pretty grim legal realities that you need to be aware.
To be clear, these aren’t meant to stop you from enjoying the Internet, but rather, to keep you from getting so caught up in what the Internet can seem like that you do something daft that lands you in trouble.
After all, the last thing anyone wants is to end up in real-world trouble because of something they did in the virtual one…
1. You Are Never Truly Anonymous
Though it’s easy to believe that you can be anyone you want on the Internet, it’s really not so simple. While using a fake name and a separate email address might give you enjoy anonymity to slip past your spouse or your boss, you still leave digital footprints almost everywhere you go online and, with the proper motivation, they can be traced back to you.
The truth is that perfect anonymity online requires that you be perfect with your precautions and that is almost impossible. The secret of your identity is only as secure as the interest in finding it.
So if you want to complain about your job or make jokes about your family without them knowing, you can likely do that with relative safety. But the moment you break laws, whether civil or criminal, and your data can be subpoenaed, the amount of effort and skill it takes to remain anonymous skyrockets and nearly anyone will leave at least some trail.
2. Everything You Say is Public (Or Can Be)
Email is often likened to snail mail. It’s something you most commonly send person to person (or to a small group) and is a direct form of communication. This makes it easy to feel as if email is private, a confidential source of communication when, in truth, nothing could be farther from the truth.
For one, if you destroy a piece of physical mail, it is gone. However, your email can hang for extended periods of time after you delete it, making it available via subpoena by third parties. For another, there’s no easy way to forward a piece of snail mail to a large audience. Finally, most of your email is not encrypted and sent “in the clear” meaning that it’s more like a postcard, where anyone can read it in transit.
The truth is, there is no such thing as truly private communication on the Interent. Though some ways are more secure than others, they all depend upon the other party keeping your trust.
However, even if there were a way to contact just one other person with complete security, the law doesn’t distinguish between one person and a million on issues of disclosure to a third party (such as with defamation cases).
In short, doing something sketchy in private on the Web may reduce your risk of getting caught, but it doesn’t necessarily make an otherwise unlawful act legal.
3. You Can’t Control Your Image Online
There’s an old saying that you can’t delete anything from the Internet and it’s true. Once something is on the Web, you might be able to reduce it or keep most people from seeing it, but you can’t delete it. Simply put, the Web is not your hard drive and you can’t delete what’s on it.
It doesn’t matter if it’s an unflattering photo, a libelous statement or a pirated copy of your content. All you can do is focus on mitigation and recovering damages, not removing it completely.
In fact, excessive attempts to control what others say about you online can result in the Streisand Effect, where people actively fight against your efforts, drawing still more attention to what you wanted hidden.
This goes back to rules one and two above. If you can’t be completely anonymous and you can’t trust that anything is 100% private, you must be very careful of what you say and do as your actions or words could be spread all over the Internet tomorrow.
So what does all of this mean for you and your site? It’s simple: Always assume that everything you do online, and many of the things you do offline, could be seen by everyone tomorrow.
To be clear, the risk of this is extremely low. The odds of one stupid tweet or post causing you serious trouble is extremely slim unless you are already a celebrity. But the Internet is something of a reverse lottery, sometimes small things become big ones and no one really knows why.
While you probably will be fine even if you aren’t careful, the risk is still very real and stupid actions on the Web can have dire consequences both in and out of the courtroom.
If you want to avoid being the next example of a person whose life is ruined because of something they did online, it’s important to be mindful of the danger and work to ensure that you keep your limit your actions not just to what’s legal, but to what you don’t mind others knowing you did.
After all, decisions on the Internet are tried both in the court of law and the court of public opinion and the latter is often much less forgiving than the former.
Jonathan Bailey founded and continues to write at Plagiarism Today, a site about content theft and copyright issues on the internet. He also manages CopyByte, a company that protects online content, and writes a regular column for BloggingPro.