What is - and isn't - legal online?

Off-limits online

Photo: Yuri Samoilov 

There are plenty of laws governing online behaviour – but because the issues are so new, people are often in the dark about exactly what is and isn’t legal when it comes to tech. Here’s our quick guide to the legal status of a few common (and sometimes confusing!) online activities. 

Streaming films

Downloading or streaming (ie. viewing content without downloading the file) of films and television shows can be legal or illegal, depending where you're getting the content from.

Many sites allow people to view unauthorised video content, but it is illegal to host or link to this. In the UK, it’s been determined that sites like The Pirate Bay, one of the most notorious sources for unauthorised video, must be blocked by internet service providers.

The law is more complicated when it comes to individual users who simply view unauthorised content (rather than copy, download or host it), but clearly it’s best to avoid using any sites which are operating illegally.

There are legal services that allow you to view video content, including Netflix, Apple TV and Amazon Prime. Most charge for their services. 

Downloading music

Increasingly, young people are listening to music through streaming services such as Spotify. These come in free versions (in Spotify's case, with ads) and paid-for. With the premium, paid-for service, users can download playlists to listen to their playlists offline, although they have to go back on Spotify every 30 days. (So it's not the same as a normal download, where you own the song).

Downloading became commonplace before people started listening to music in the cloud (ie. streamed). A 2009 report* suggested that 95% of music available online was being downloaded illegally. So illegal music downloading was, and probably still is, the easiest way for average young people to break the law online. It was becoming next to impossible for the music industry to enforce the regulations.

Users who download copyrighted material without paying for it are unlikely to face legal consequences, especially where they're doing it only for personal use. That said, in principle, excessive downloaders could face warning letters, disconnection of internet service and potentially even lawsuits.

There are plenty of free and legal ways to listen to music online. There are some legal free download sites, like Free Music Archive; and Last.fm and artists’ Facebook pages sometimes make free downloads available legally. Here’s a quick rundown of some places to legally access and download free music: 

Listening to music:

  • Spotify – a music streaming service. Paid accounts are ad-free, offer different levels of access (ie on mobile too) and offline listening (of up to 3,333 songs at once). The free version also offers a range of services.  
  • YouTube – online video giant YouTube works with music companies to host millions of free music videos. Other video sites, like Vevo, can also be good sources. 
  • Amazon Prime members get access to Prime Music for free, while the company has also introduced the Amazon Music Unlimited paid-for subscription service.
  • New services regularly come into the market - this is a fast-moving space.

Legal free downloads:

  • Amazon – Surprising as it may seem given their significant selection of music to purchase, Amazon also makes lots of tracks available to download free of charge.
  • Last.fm – popular music recommendation service Last.fm also provides a selection of free downloads.
  • Free Music Archive – one of the largest and most popular sources of free downloads, this site only hosts free content. 
  • Jamendo – using a Creative Commons license, Jamendo has a large collection of free music. 

Using VPNs

A VPN, or virtual private network, uses a public network (like the internet) to establish a private network for a particular group of users. This allows them secure access to share data. Lots of internet users use VPNs, and there are numerous free and paid-for options out there – examples include Private Internet Access, TorVPN, proXPN and WiTopia. There are plenty of legitimate uses of VPNs, especially for increased privacy and security. Some VPNs are free, some are paid, and lots of them have terms and conditions banning illegal activity. As a general rule, it is not illegal to use a VPN, so long as you’re not using it for unlawful activity. They can potentially, however, be used for illegal activities.

Viewing sexual images of minors, downloading or posting copyrighted content without permission and other unlawful activities are still illegal when a VPN is used. In fact, many VPNs state in their terms and conditions that they will cooperate with the authorities in the event of an investigation – and they will have access to information about your activity. If you break the law online, you should assume that there will be a record, regardless of whether a VPN is used. 

Copying content 

There’s a wealth of information available on the internet, which can be a valuable tool for learning. Copying someone else’s work in school has been against the rules for as long as teachers have been giving out homework, but the internet has made plagiarism even easier as the pool of content to copy has grown enormously. 

It’s not against the law for a student to use copyrighted material regardless of whether proper credit is given, as educational use is generally considered fair use. It is, however, against the rules of pretty much every school and college to pass off someone else’s work as your own (regardless of whether or not it is copyrighted). Although academic plagiarism is handled by schools rather than the police, it is still an extremely serious matter. Consequences can range from being failed for that piece of work to losing a place on a course. It’s important for students to remember that it’s not just word-for-word copying that counts as plagiarism – even paraphrasing or drawing heavily from someone else’s work can be an offence if it isn’t cited properly. Learning how to take useful notes and use common citation methods can often stop students getting into this kind of trouble.

Using someone else’s copyrighted work without permission can be a criminal offence if the intention is to use it to make a profit or in some other way that isn't fair use. This will rarely be a concern for students, but anyone using copyrighted work for purposes other than personal research or study should try to seek permission first. This applies to photography, film, music, text…best to think twice before using the results of a random Google image search in your work! 

Sharing explicit images of yourself 

If you are under the age of 18, it is a violation of UK law to distribute sexually explicit pictures of yourself. This is true regardless of the age of the person you are sending to, or how willing you are to send them – the pictures are still considered indecent images of a child. This means that if a young person engages in sexting with a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend, all parties involved could find themselves in trouble with the law. It’s also important to remember that legal consequences aren’t the only possible undesirable result of sending or uploading compromising photos. Once you send a picture, it’s very difficult to control who sees it, and these images can easily find their way into the wrong hands. If, as a young person, you are feeling pressured to send explicit images, you should remember that both you and the recipient would be breaking the law. 

Sharing or viewing explicit images of others

If you’re planning to forward or distribute an explicit image of someone else and the person is under 18, this action would be a crime. If someone else sends a sexual picture of a young person to you and you view and keep it, you could also be in legal trouble. This is true regardless of whether you requested the image. 

Even if the person is an adult, however, there are some laws in place protecting them. If you got the image by hacking or if you’re using it to threaten or coerce the person, for instance, you are acting unlawfully. And in February 2015 it became illegal to share private sexual images of someone without their consent and with the intention to cause distress. Increased attention is being focused on this issue after the legislative changes and recent incidents involving celebrities, so people should be extremely careful about sharing explicit images of others. 

Hacking

Sending someone a virus to gain access to their private information or hacking into their computer through other means is illegal under the Computer Misuse Act. Because hacking is often used for fraudulent activity, or as part of a theft, these crimes are viewed very seriously and can have major consequences for offenders. Some computer hacking is also considered a form of terrorism – this applies only to computer hacking that is designed to influence the government, intimidate the public, or advance a political, religious or ideological cause. Naturally, these actions are taken extremely seriously. 

Logging into someone else’s account (Facebook, email, etc.)

We’ve all experienced the temptation to post a funny status or profile picture on someone else’s Facebook account, but a) it's very bad manners and b) can get you into legal hot water.

It’s not illegal to go on someone else’s account, but misusing another person’s sensitive information (such as religion, sexual orientation or political views, whether or not this information is accurate) was found to be unlawful in 2008. Passing yourself off as someone else and communicating with others on their behalf can expose you to lawsuits, as can any defamatory statements. It can also be unlawful to make libellous statements about others online, even when posting as yourself. 

Cyberbullying

With the increased prevalence of children using smartphones, computers, social media and other technology, some traditional playground bullying has moved online. Cyber bullying can be extremely damaging to both the victims and the perpetrators and can have lasting consequences. While bullying and cyberbullying are not specifically illegal, certain bullying activities are covered by other laws, including the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, The Malicious Communications Act 1988, Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, and The Public Order Act 1986. All students have the right to a safe educational environment, so if cyberbullying interferes with a child’s education, it is likely that it will be taken very seriously.

*International Federation of the Phonographic Industry

SOURCES:

http://www.ifpi.org/

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/jan/16/online-music-illegal-downloads

http://www.inbrief.co.uk/offences/child-porn-and-the-law.htm

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ampp3d/nude-photos-7-laws-protect-4146809

http://smallbusiness.chron.com/liability-posting-photos-facebook-permission-60022.html

http://www.himsworthslegal.com/when-is-it-unlawful-to-impersonate-someone-else

http://www.bbc.co.uk/webwise/0/22718822 

http://findlaw.co.uk/law/criminal/crimes_a_z/computer-hacking.html

http://www.inbrief.co.uk/offences/cyberbullying/

http://www.heacademy.ac.ukresources/assessment/plagiarism/legal_plagiarism.html

http://lrweb.beds.ac.uk/education/dont

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-17922214 

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/askjack/2012/may/17/vpn-internet-privacy-security

http://www.lifehacker.co.uk/2012/09/05/start-using-vpn-choose-best-one-needs

http://community.sparknotes.com/2014/01/16/places-to-download-free-music-that-arent-illegal

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/illegal-downloading-what-happens-if-youre-caught-1736013.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/19103881

http://techylab.com/835/free-music-songs-download-listen/

https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc779919(v=ws.10).aspx

http://computer.howstuffworks.com/vpn.htm

http://gizmodo.com/5990192/vpns-what-they-do-how-they-work-and-why-youre-dumb-for-not-using-one

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