The online laws you’ve already broken

Next time you log into Facebook or Twitter, take a second to think about what you’re about to write.

New research suggests many Brits may be breaking the law online without even realising they are doing so, giving rise to the term “accidental outlaw”. Potential crimes can include defamation in a Tweet or Facebook status, such as accusing someone of something they didn’t do or ruining their reputation without evidence.

Downloading music and movies illegally is another common pitfall while even simply changing the status on Facebook of a friend or family member without their permission is against the law.

The survey for found only 44% of people were able to correctly identify illegal online activities. More than 2,000 people were asked to complete nine tests in a bid to get them to spot those actions that would be illegal in cyberspace including picking out a libelous Tweet.

These and similar problems have been highlighted recently with jail sentences for people who incited riots or action against those who defamed others online. In fact, there has been a rise in the number cases brought in court citing comments on blogs and social media.

The top five areas of concern found by the research were:

1) Uploading copyrighted content such as photos or song lyrics to a personal website or social network with just a 33% average pass rate.
2) Using copyrighted material on blogs (35%)
3) Discussing or publishing details of a super injunction (38%)
4) Defamation of other people through social media (42%)
5) Uploading and downloading of music illegally (44%)

Some other common examples include:

• Retweeting a message naming someone involved in a superinjunction is illegal, or even giving precise clues to their identity.

• Uploading a video from a gig is illegal if the concert ticket has said recording is not allowed. Even just watching it on your computer would be illegal.

• Any photo someone else has taken is protected by their copyright. Reposting it without permission or without paying any fee needed to do so is illegal.

• It may seem fun to post a jokey message in your friend’s Facebook status but UK law prohibits people from changing somebody else’s “computer records” even with permission to access them. To change anything, you’d need their specific permission for the change.

• Never encourage any kind of criminal activity in any statement you post digitally even if you haven’t done it or think you’ve only posted it privately on something like BlackBerry Messenger. You could still face prison.

Interestingly among 16-24 year olds, only 17% of those asked were “very confident” their online actions were lawful, showing many already fear they could be breaking the rules.

One participant was shocked to hear that changing another person’s Facebook status is illegal saying: “All our friends go on each others’ phones and change the status messages, it can’t be illegal if it’s not offensive?!”

“The results of the study show a worrying lack of understanding of how the law applies online, particularly amongst younger age groups,” Phil Kingsland, site director at, said:

“In the past year we’ve seen many cases of people being convicted for offences committed online and, while there are those who set out to deliberately break the law and get punished, there are many others who could find themselves in trouble without realising they were doing anything wrong.

“By getting more familiar with the law and applying the same common sense online as you would offline, you can have confidence and peace of mind that you won’t end up in trouble for using the Internet illegally.”

James Hutchinson, a partner with law firm Beale and Company, said “Your actions on the internet are permanent and can have serious civil and criminal ramifications. Before sending an email, tweeting or posting to Facebook think ‘Would I want this read out in court?’

“You’re not anonymous when browsing and the courts regularly order Internet Service Providers to disclose the names and details of their subscribers.”

Below are five tips from to stay out of trouble and you can take the test yourself here
•    When you log on, don’t let your common sense log off! Something that seems like a harmless prank could have unpleasant consequences.
•    Just because everyone else is talking about a topic doesn’t mean it’s legal to do so – if there’s any doubt, it’s best to say nowt!
•    Think about how a content creator would feel about your use of their work– whether you are sharing it online or downloading it off the web. If you wouldn’t be happy with people doing it with your content, there’s a good chance they feel the same way.
•    If you are going to say something negative about someone online, be absolutely sure it is true before you publish.
•    Don’t post jokes online that might be seen to encourage people to do something illegal or violent!