The huge growth in use of the internet in the last few years has thrown up many issues which should be of concern to website owners and in particular small business owners who market their business online.
There are a wide range of areas in which you can fall foul in your promotion of your business on the internet.
The potential areas of concern for website owners are extensive and include
- Direct marketing and email marketing
- Electronic commerce
- Copyright infringement
- Trade mark infringement
- Domain name disputes
- Selling online and European Communities directives and regulations
- Child pornography
- Liability of internet service providers
- Employees use of the internet in the workplace
- Data protection
Three of the most common and serious areas of potential legal difficulty for website owners, individuals and small businesses include
- Criminal behaviour on the internet
- Intellectual property rights infringement
- Infringement of the privacy rights of individuals.
Some of the most common activities on the internet which are or may be illegal (depending on jurisdiction) include hacking, framing, deep linking, harvesting and infringement of trade mark through the use of meta tags.
Hacking broadly breaking into another’s computer or websites to steal information or cause damage. Whilst it can be difficult to prosecute in Ireland the Criminal Damage Act, 1991 contains a number of provisions to combat hackers.
Sections 2(1), 2(2), 3, 4 and 5(1) criminalises
- Damage to property with property including “data” and damage including erasing, corrupting and altering data;
- Threat to damage property even if the attempt to damage is unsuccessful;
- Possession of anything with the intent to use it to damage property;
- Unauthorised access with the intent to access “any data”.
The Data Protection Acts criminalizes unauthorised access to personal data.
Unlawful use of a computer is criminalized by the section 9(1) of the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act, 2001 and other illegal behaviour on the internet is covered by the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000 and the Electronic Commerce Act, 2000.
Harvesting is the activity of the collection of email addresses for spamming purposes and taking of information from databases of third parties without the latter’s consent.
Harvesting is criminalized by the Data Protection Acts 1998 and 2003 and possibly also by the Criminal Damage Act, 1991 and the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000.
Deep linking to other websites can be unlawful in certain circumstances where those links infringe the rights of the owner of the website to which the link goes. (See Shetland Times Limited v Dr. Johnathan Willis )
It is also possible that a simple link to another website which contains a registered trade mark term can be a breach of the intellectual property rights of the site to which you link. Playboy (www.playboy.com) in the United States won a case in relation to this activity when it discovered a pornographic site linking to it with it’s trade mark term.
Framing, which is the division of a website into “frames” where a website’s text is displayed next to linked third party material in the same window may be a breach of copyright law.
Meta tag trade mark infringement
Many cases in the United States have been taken successfully where a website owner sues a competitor for the use of a trade mark term as a meta tag in the competitors website, even though such meta tags may not be visible to surfers or visitors to the site.
Clearly there are many potential infringements in the area of internet law with remedies provided for in the statute books. It is an area where you would be well advised to assess your current engagement on the internet to ensure you or your business is not storing up problems for the future.