Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

1.18. What's allowed on the Internet?

As I said earlier, the Internet is mostly an anarchistic place: what you are allowed to do on the Internet may include quite a bit more than you think. But the Internet's rules and social mores are much affected by the real world, so the Internet is not a free-for-all where anything goes. What you can do is affected by the laws, politics, and ethics of the outside world.

Confusing all the issues is the fact that the Internet is extremely big. It isn't one body with one set of rules; it encompasses other networks, many of which have their own rules (appropriate use policies). It encompasses hundreds of countries, each of which have different laws regarding computer use, copyrights, obscenity, and so on. Sticky export laws come into effect if you're sending data across national boundaries or even from one U.S. state to another.

There aren't too many restrictions regarding what you may do on the Internet, but frankly, those restrictions aren't very clearly defined. When in doubt, ask your service provider if a particular use is acceptable. For instance, commercial activity is not condoned if your service provider is connected via the NSFnet backbone, but if you're connected through CIX, BARRnet, or any of hundreds of other network backbones, commercial activity is okay.

Copyright and intellectual property laws are especially important on the Internet. In the online society, your words are frequently the only way you are known to others. Those words all happen to be in bits and bytes, so it's extremely easy to store. re-transmit, or steal someone else's work (be it an electronic mail message or a book). It helps to know some things about copyright law and intellectual property law. I think no one really understands intellectual property law, including (especially?) the intellectual property lawyers.

Note: Here's a quick story that may or may not have anything to do with what I'm discussing here. In early 1994, I wrote a magazine article about how to send a fax from the Internet. A couple of weeks after it was published, I found that someone (who, although misguided about U.S. copyright law, seemed to find my article useful) had typed in the entire article and posted the whole thing to the Usenet. Accompanying the article was the note: "Please don't distribute this too widely: I am posting this without permission of the author." Although he was concerned about distributing the article too widely, he had just distributed my article on the largest public forum in history! Moral: know who owns something before you zap it across the Internet. If it's not yours, get permission before you use it.

What you can do on the Net boils down to this: if the network you use, or the network it is connected to, is subsidized by the federal government, your activities must be "in support of research or education." If you are on a private commercial network, your activities aren't restricted in that manner. Luckily, even for those on subsidized networks, the phrase "in support of research or education" is fairly broad.

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