Internet law – Essential Guide

Internet law is closely related to the laws that relate to other similar areas of broadcasting, retail, and information handling, and in many cases, internet laws are identical to those covering the offline world for such things as data protection, defamation, copyright infringement and trademarks.

Internet law is closely related to the laws that relate to other similar areas of broadcasting, retail, and information handling, and in many cases, internet laws are identical to those covering the offline world for such things as data protection, defamation, copyright infringement and trademarks.


What do I need to know about data protection?


The Data Protection Act 1998 covers personal data that finds itself on the Internet, and any web site that collects personal information will need to comply with the Act.

Personal information is any information that relates to a living individual who can be identified from that information or from that and other information in the web site owner’s possession, or likely to come into our possession.

Personal information can include an email address or telephone number, or information about people's personal experiences and opinions.

Personal data, the Data Protection Act says, should only be kept should only be kept for the minimum length of time necessary and appropriate to the uses for which it has been agreed.

Technologies like encryption, along with good data handling practises, can help to ensure that personal data remains secure and private.


What is a Data Use notice?


Any web sites that collect personal information should include a Data Use notice. This needs to describe all the purposes for which the information collected will be used, and includes information collected via cookies or other covert software.

If any of the information collected is going to be used for promotion, marketing, research or any other secondary purpose, the data usage notice must give individuals the opportunity to agree to it. This means an ‘opt-in’ box needs to be included in the notice.


How about copyright?


Copyright law covers the internet just as it covers magazines, newspapers or other media. Organisations are advised to place appropriate copyright and trademark notices on their web sites to indicate ownership of material.

Businesses are also urged to register relevant domain names as early as possible to avoid the problem of fighting the cybersquatters. But as domain names prepare to be liberalised in 2010, this will become a tougher challenge, because web addresses could theoretically end in any word.


Which laws and regulations apply to e-commerce?


New Electronic Commerce Regulations came into force in August 2002, and implement the European E-Commerce Directive into UK law. One of their main aims is to ensure that electronic contracts are legally binding and enforceable throughout Europe.

The Regulations apply to businesses that sell goods or services to businesses or consumers on the internet, or by email or SMS messages. It also covers businesses that advertise on the internet, or by email or SMS; or convey or store electronic content for customers, or provide access to a communications network.

Among other things, the Regulations identify specific information about your business that you must provide to recipients of online services, and set down guidelines regarding advertising and promotions.

When dealing with online contracts, customers should be able to print and store a copy of the terms and conditions.

When it comes to advertising on the internet, or by email or SMS, the Regulations stipulate that "commercial communications" must be clearly recognisable as such. They must clearly identify the person on whose behalf the marketing communication is sent, together with any promotional offer.

The Regulations also cover "unsolicited commercial communications", commonly referred to as spam. Spam must be identifiable from the subject line of the email, without the need to read the rest of the message. However, SMS spam is not covered by the Regulations.


How do cybercriminals get away with it?


As internet technologies have matured and more consumers and businesses use the web for banking and finance, retail and communication, more criminals than ever are targeting the internet.

The internet can pose difficult legal problems because internet laws can differ from country to country. Cybercriminals will exploit this, often hiding their tracks by setting up complex layers of web site administration, based across several countries.

Cybersquatters, identity theft, and web sites that sell illegal or illicit materials are legion. But policing authorities are constantly aiming to improve their detection and infiltration of these illegal activities and applying the full force of the law.

This was last published in July 2009

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