THE LAW AND THE INTERNET

By Barry L. Thompson Esquire

   This article is certainly not meant to address all of the issues involving the rules and laws governing the use of the Internet. It is an attempt to provide a brief shorthand guide to two of the emerging issues arising from the clash of the new technology of the Internet and existing legal precedents.

ONLINE IMMUNITY:

    The Federal government has pre-empted the field of all state tort and negligence law by passing 47 U.S.C. Section 203 which grants all internet service providers full immunity from any action against them based upon materials or information that originate from third party users of the internet service. This means that an individual cannot sue AOL or Prodigy or any ISP based upon claims of the untruth or libel of the contents of its service if others place those materials there. This law was tested in the case of Zeran v. America OnLine, Inc. (1997).

    The Zeran Case arises out of the advertising for sale of tasteless t-shirts mocking the tragedy of the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building in 1995. The unknown advertiser used the Internet address and telephone number of an innocent individual named Ken Zeran as the source for this offensive material. Mr. Zeran was deluged with hundreds of abusive telephone calls that seriously damaged his ability to run his home-based business. The Court upheld the law. The net result is that ISP’s are totally immune from suit based upon the information posted on the Internet by third parties and in addition are free from any liability involving their attempts to restrict the publication of obscene or objectionable material.

    This aspect of the law of the Internet is new and will likely evolve as technology and public attitudes continue to evolve.

 EMAIL PRIVACY:

    Can you read your employee’s email file? Can you monitor the Internet sites that your employee visits? Are you responsible for the contents of your employee’s email dispatches?

    The answer is "Yes" to all three but you need to be careful in your approach.

    There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace for items created during the workday. The employee is using the tool of the employer; the computer and its network.

    As far as visited sites although the Internet is an invaluable resource for business purposes it is also a great place to "play". Often one can spend hours "surfing the net" and not know where the time goes. This is not acceptable when an employee is on the clock and an employer is allowed to monitor such non-work related activities.

    If you are responsible for the paper documents generated by your employees then; you are responsible for the email documents generated by them as well. Rather than nit-pick the question of whether you are or are not responsible for a particular aspect of an email transmission, assume that you are and plan accordingly. The best approach is to establish a written email and Internet policy that addresses all these issues and circulate it throughout the office….. via the email!


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