Seven Ways You’re Breaking the Law Online

Internet Safety

Seven Ways You May be Breaking the LawAs the tech-age advances, there are so many ways teens and adults are using their communication devices that violate laws, and some don’t give it a second thought. The prevailing attitude is that if it’s not happening face-to-face, laws needn’t apply.

Some of these violations are all too common – a simple oversight of trifling proportions or an infraction with no ill intent whatsoever. While some could land you just a wallet-thinning fine, others could earn you jail time and a criminal record.

Here are seven ways law-abiding citizens can be turned into law breakers with the click of a button:


That Valentine’s Day snapshot of you in barely-there red undies, sent to your beloved’s mobile may not just end up matching the blush in your cheeks in a few years time when it ends up across the Internet.  A police report can turn this graphic display of affection into a criminal investigation.  And to engrave the lesson in the minds of all young adults, these cases have ended in a lifetime enlistment of minors on the state’s Internet sex offender registry and as long as a seven-year jail term.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re 13 or 18 years old or whether the pictures were voluntarily taken of yourself, by yourself.  As long as you were found to produce, distribute or possess a sexually explicit photo of a minor, you could qualify for misdemeanor or felony charges depending on the state’s child pornography laws.

Involves: sending nude or semi-nude photos or videos of someone under the age of 18 using a cell phone or electronic device.
Charged under: laws prohibiting the creation, possession and/or distribution of child pornography
Outlawed in: in at least four states in the U.S. including Utah, Florida and Pennsylvania


Perhaps cyberbullies don`t care about other people’s feelings, but the law certainly does.  Often the intention of electronic harassment is to ruin the victim’s reputation and friendships. But with proposed anti-cyberbullying laws being passed, along with existing harassment laws, these trash talkers could start feeling the flak with a plaguing criminal record.

Involves: flaming (hostile and insulting interaction) in public chat channels and forums, masquerading as someone else online, posting false rumors or private information about someone using the web or mobile phones, posting photos of people on the Internet along with derogatory comments,  or sending threatening or abusive messages.
Charged under: defamation, invasion of privacy laws or as inflicting emotional distress
Outlawed in: In the U.S., legislative responses to cyberbullying vary from educational to punitive.  Some schools are mandated to have cyberbullying policies in place, which grant school officials the authority to punish the act, and educate and counsel students on the consequences of online bullying. In Canada, there is now a bill suggesting current harassment law penalties be applied to cyberbullying, which includes a maximum of 10 years imprisonment and up to five years for defamatory libel.


In this adrenalized day and age, people by default are master multi-taskers. We can talk with our mouths full.  We “Facebook” while we “work.”  And tsk tsk, we are all known to text, chat and sometimes surf on our mobiles while operating a vehicle.  While there are some who swear they can text with their eyes closed, using a cell phone and driving has proven to be a dangerous duo, resulting in accidents that have led to brain injuries and deaths. If you have to communicate while on the road, stick to hands-free devices or pull to the side of the road.

Involves: talking or texting on a hand-held device while driving
Charged under: careless driving
Outlawed in: Ontario, Canada’s new law, which bans the use of cell phones and other electronic devices while driving is expected to come into effect in fall 2009. Under this proposed new law, drivers could face fines as big as $500, a $1,000 fine for endangering others, 6 demerit points, license suspension and even jail time.  A jurisdiction-wide ban on driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone is in place in 7 states (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) and the District of Columbia.)


Whether it’s a photo on Flickr, a song on MySpace or a philosophical dissertation posted on Blogger, if its copyright protected, reproducing, distributing or republishing their work could be illegal.  The only exception is when the copyright owner gives blanket permission under a Creative Commons license.  With a CC license, owners keep their copyright but can allow the copying and distribution of their work under specific conditions (e.g., the user must give you credit).  Before even deliberating, read the owner’s copyright notice (a link found on their home page), which details their policies on reproducing their material or contact them personally to request permission.

Story elements of TV shows, movies and literary works are also protected by copyrights.  Perhaps you felt that Terminator Salvation left viewers hanging with a half-hearted ending, and decide to publish your own ending in your personal blog.  Discontent content creators, who happen to come across it, have the right to request its removal.

Involves: copying, uploading and distributing a song, photo, video or text without authorization from copyright owners using a handheld device or computer (this includes using copyrighted material like a song in your own video)
Charged under: intellectual property and copyright laws
Outlawed in: In most common law countries like Canada, copyright exists not at the common law, but in statute only.  Canada’s copyright is informed by international treaties on copyright protection, which work to consolidate copyright laws across the globe. When it comes to circumventing digital rights management (DRM) systems (i.e., any technology that prevents illegal copies such as encryption of DVDs), Canada applies existing laws to protect how digital works are accessed and used.  In the U.S., such acts are outlawed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.


Before hitting the record button, first thing you should determine is whether you require one-party consent or two-party consent. One-party consent would apply to phone calls or conversations between two people, where the recorder must ask for permission from the other. Two-party consent applies to phone calls or conversations involving more than two people, where permission from all parties is required.  Recording someone without consent can result in criminal charges and fines.  There are also laws on keeping the recorder visible to all parties involved.  In this case, consent is implied if all parties see the recorder in plain view and do not object.

: the taping of conversations without the consent of all parties involved
Charged under: invasion of privacy laws
Outlawed in: In the U.S., federal law allows people to tape their own two-party phone calls without informing the other person.  In Canada however, one-party notification is required. For more information, please refer to state laws (for Americans) or provincial laws (for Canadians).


When it comes to the legalities of picture taking, who you take the picture of and where is critical.  For public spaces and famous faces, you’re usually in the clear.  Though the law varies for countries, in the U.S. and Canada, street photography is legal, provided that you are not violating other laws.  In private settings like washrooms and within private property like a person’s yard, taking pictures is considered illegal.    Private property open to public access like museums, stores and theaters may also prohibit picture taking.

When your snapshots go from personal to commercial in use, it opens another can of worms.  Consent must be given from those identifiable in the photo by signing a model release form, which gives the photographer rights to publish, sell and make copies of the photo indefinitely.  A location release may also be required from the owner of any identifiable buildings in your photo.

Charged as: In North America, the right to express ourselves through photography is covered under our rights and freedoms.  But that right like any other only applies so as long as you don’t violate anyone else’s rights.  
•    Publishing certain pictures could be charged as invasion of privacy.
•    Getting a candid of someone where there is reasonable expectation of privacy (e.g., bathroom) is criminal voyeurism.  
•    Manipulating photos to misrepresent or damage the reputation of people or property could be charged as defamation.  
•    Entering private property to get a quick snapshot can be charged as trespassing.  
•    Having your photo taken or displayed without your consent can be considered harassment.
•    Subject matter of photos can also be restricted by moral rights.
Outlawed in: Photography privacy laws vary across international borders.  Do your research before shooting or posting. You can visit The Photographer’s Guide to Privacy for the U.S., here. For Canada, click here.


Who knew the simple act of linking to copyright-infringing content hosted on other websites could land you in court.  Though the issue remains a grey area, in a legal battle, the laws will work in favor of the copyright owner. Site owners will be issued a takedown notice and could face substantial legal fees. Also, in some jurisdictions, site owners can face liability and damages if they were found linking to websites containing defamatory material, and found advocating the offensive content or explicitly directing readers to the material.

Involves: linking to copyrighted material without the copyright holder’s consent (e.g., news sites, audiocasts, videos and mp3 files) on your website (also extending to blogs), linking to defamatory web pages or a libel (including gossip).
Charged under: With regards to copyright material, violators could be charged under the contributory infringement law (involving the facilitation of copyright infringement on the Internet).  It’s important to note that bloggers are also subject to the jurisdictions of over 190 countries and states. Countries like the U.K. will hold you liable for “republishing defamation” and consider you a distributor of the linked material.
Outlawed in: In Canada, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that providing a link to defamatory material is not considered defamation or publishing.  Linking to copyrighted material however, constitutes liability in various countries including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and some countries in Europe.


  • Dania

    I found a picture of a half naked girl on my son’s cell phone this past year. He’s 16! Lord knows how old she is. Now that I know it’s illegal, I’ll have to have that talk too. Kids these day!

  • Sune Mølgaard

    No, parents these days, going through their children’s private conversations (let that sink in for a moment)!

    And laws these days, being overly broad and moralistic. Dania, if your son coerced the girl into taking the picture, that should be illegal, but most probably, she did so on her own accord *for your son to see only*. Distribution of it should be illegal, but not possession by the intended first-order recipient, and for the love of me, I can’t get over her being liable as a purveyor!

    Additionally, consider how to enter “that talk”. Somehow I think that “Hi, if you weren’t my son, I would have been breaking the law by going through your phone messages, but I found myself in a perfectly rightful position to do so – here is the deal…” doesn’t work overly well towards keeping a trusting and open relationship with your son…


  • Jay Hunter

    Wow OP, you’ve just ruined some teenager’s life ^^^^ (lol)

    Breaking the law is subjective…like making two backup copies of a DVD you own, or taping a NFL game with implied oral consent instead of express written consent….

    I’d wager that minors ‘sexting’ is quite commonplace and should be used at the discretion of the people involved…i.e. if you give someone a digital ranchy photo of yourself, expect to be blackmailed with it when you two break up :D

  • Jake

    So can I post this article on facebook? or would that be considered a copyright infringement?

  • Paul

    Hope you have plenty of bandwidth – you’ve been slashdotted. Meanwhile – those laws are all different in each jurisdiction. All of the laws mentioned above are being challenged. These are “gray” areas of the law – that is, few specific laws actually apply to them, and the ones that do were written with other circumstances in mind. Actual laws concerning today’s technology need to be formulated. Some of these laws actually NEED to be overturned. Like sexting. Sending a photo of yourself to a close friend should NEVER be illegal. “Publishing” that photo for public consumption should be illegal. Huge difference there. Sending that photo to your special other is most certainly silly – but people in love do silly things. Being in love should NOT be illegal.

  • Ashley – Kiwi Commons Admin

    in reply to Jake: Go ahead and post on Facebook. Just make sure you link back to our site. Thanks and glad you enjoy the article!

  • James L.

    They are (the law) trying to set implemcations as deterrence. It’s a bad call obviously. It’s like charging grown men for looking at pornography. It is simply a personal choice.

    The only way it is illegal is if there’s an adult invovled. Otherwise it’s just kids doing something stupid. Just like those kids who post their home address in profiles or wear visible school uniforms in photographs they post.

    The legal system should be more concerened with actual pedophiles and law breakers. Let the parents explain why sexting is wrong and deal with the consequences on their own terms.

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  • Tink

    “Having your photo taken or displayed without your consent can be considered harassment” So, with this guide…I'm concerned. My ex-boyfriend posted pictures of my son and I on his personal, yet very public website without my permission. I asked him to take them off, yet he has not done so. What can I do?