Freedom of Speech for Web Publishers and Citizen Journalists

Legal Overview of Online Information Privacy

What does the law say about information privacy rights and the Web? Slowly but surely, the courts are sorting through the issues.

Web publishers and online business owners have a vested interested in complying with information privacy laws.

But if you were to contact your attorney for advice about online privacy laws, his response would be that the current legal environment is muddy, at best.

Both the courts and legislative bodies are struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of technological advancements. Rather than creating or enforcing bad legislation, the way they have responded to online privacy concerns is to try and avoid the issue whenever possible.

As an Internet entrepreneur, you can't afford the luxury of not dealing with information privacy issues. Although the issue is far from clear, online information security issues do have some legal precedents - and the best way to familiarize yourself with the legal issues is through a brief survey of some of the cases that have made their way through the courts and the U.S. law enforcement community.

Internet Search Data

Internet providers are legally entitled to track the online activities of their users. In fact, the law enforcement community often relies on ISPs to provide them with evidence of individual searching activities. In 2006, the FBI worked with Google to obtain evidence that a wireless hacker had performed searches on topics related to illegal activities and Google confirmed that they are fully capable of providing search terms to law enforcement. What's the lesson? That your site content and your users' interactions are legally visible and should be treated accordingly.

State v. Reid

State v. Reid was a case that was reviewed by the New Jersey Supreme Court, upholding the privacy of personal information users provide to their ISP. An employee named Shirley Reid was indicted for computer theft in an incident involving her employer. New Jersey State Police obtained her identity by contacting the ISP. However, the New Jersey Courts ruled that personal information is protected unless it has been subpoenaed by a grand jury. Federal courts have not been as protective of personal data in their rulings, but State v. Reid indicates that users often have a reasonable expectation of privacy - especially in New Jersey.

Google Buzz

Always the innovator, Google released Google Buzz, an attempt to promote social network and online community interactions for Google account users. One of the features of Google Buzz is that it posts a list of frequent contacts or email recipients in the user's public profile. Since this is a default feature, privacy concerns surfaced immediately after its release. A lawsuit has been filed and although its outcome is pending, Google Buzz is a reminder that web publishers should always give users the ability to opt-in on additional features, especially if the features could reveal personal information.

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