Topics: internet, law, technology
The Nine Days to a Lawsuit-Free Life series draws to a close tonight with a look at how you can keep your computer habits from landing you in court. With the advent of the internet, mankind is now capable of feats of which our caveperson ancestors only dreamed–shopping from the comfort of your own home, reading witty personal finance commentary while you’re on the toilet, and of course the ever-popular self-Googling. But as the popularity of computers and the internet continues to grow around the world, so does the tendency of certain folks to use these technological marvels for illegal purposes. Now it seems that not a week goes by without a new episode of e-crime popping up on the evening news; and it can be quite a surprise for some to see that the perpetrators of these kinds of wrong-doings aren’t your typical breed of criminal. In fact, according to some statistics (certainly not ones I’m making up on the spot), every single one of your neighbors is a cyber criminal of one kind or another.
From the safety of your home computer, it may seem that you can get away with anything on the internet. I imagine today’s criminals are getting pretty fat since they can get their share of illegal activities without walking out their front door. You can gamble, steal others’ property, and look at nekkid folks all in the same browser session! But just because other people are doing these sorts of things and getting away with it doesn’t mean that you will or should try in the first place. True, your chances of getting caught for many of these e-crimes are slim, but if you are convicted of using your computer for criminal conduct, you’ll be treated just like a guy in a ski mask who barges into a liquor store with a gun.
Fortunately for you, it’s usually pretty simple to tell if you’re entering legally shady territory using your own common sense. But just to be safe, let’s go over some stuff you should and shouldn’t do with your computer if you want to keep your butt out of court or jail and on the sofa looking at pictures of cats in sinks.
- Don’t share illegal movies and music. I’m gonna get it from the crowd on this one, but let me explain why uploading and downloading illegal copies of movies, music, and other stolen e-property isn’t a good idea. Sure, you might think that paying nothing to download that copy of your all-time favorite movie is a good idea, but the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has launched a barrage of lawsuits against people who have done just that. So far, numerous people have settled suits with the MPAA and its music recording industry counterpart, while others are spending thousands of dollars defending their actions in court. Though the efforts to prosecute these “crimes” have been less than successful, they’re still costing the targets of their suits tons of money. And while it seems that some of the actions are targeting clearly innocent victims, you can help ensure you stay P2P-lawsuit-free by avoiding “illegal” file-sharing in the first place. Don’t worry, Punny Money will let you know as soon as a movie or song comes out that’s worth watching or hearing… but don’t hold your breath on that one.
- Save the gambling for Vegas or Atlantic City. The fate of online gambling is still up in the air, but you may soon start hearing of prosecutions against illegal internet gambling operations if lawmakers get their way. And while you may think that you’ll be safe from prosecution yourself since all you did was click on some pretty pictures of playing cards on your computer screen, think again. Since you’re a customer of these gambling operations, your personal data could be seized by government officials, and they could choose to target folks like you in their investigation. You could lose every penny you’ve made gambling online (or lose pennies you haven’t made if you’re bad at it), and jail time is certainly a possibility in any cases of illegal gaming.
- If you’re a sicko, stay off my internet. Horrible and disgusting crimes like child pornography have been able to thrive in recent years thanks in large part to the internet. But at the same time, law enforcement officials have been stepping up their efforts to combat these heinous criminal acts. So if you’re thinking about using your computer for this type of sleaze, please do us all a favor and turn yourself in right now.
- Watch what your kids do online. Adults, repeat after me: whatever I can do on the internet, my children can do fifty times better. You may not understand some of the things your kids do while they’re online, but you should still monitor their activities to make sure they’re not breaking any laws. You may come to find out that little Jimmy has racked up thousands of dollars in online poker or littler Annie is running an online video bootleg shop. (Oh, and in case you didn’t know, teens–not adults–are the biggest viewers of online child pornography.) And if the police find out, who do you think they’re going to blame for these things? That’s right, you–the dumb parents who don’t know how to do this stuff in the first place!
- Beware tax implications of online income. You put together a little website that pulled in a couple of bucks from online advertising revenue, or maybe you’ve been filling out surveys for some pocket change in your spare time. Guess what? That’s income, just like what you bring home from your day job. And you better believe that the IRS wants to know about every penny you make from your various interet endeavors. If you think you can get away with hiding your e-income, you may be unpleasantly surprised during an audit when the IRS finds out that you made $1,600 selling your husband’s hat collection on eBay. So pay your taxes–all of them–and consult a professional tax accountant if you’re not sure how to report your online income.
- E-mail can be just as incriminating as regular mail. Your neighbors just painted their house the brightest shade of neon green possible, and you’re steaming mad. So you sit down at your computer and compose a threatening e-mail to your neighbors telling them to bring back that dull white color or else you’ll burn their neon monstrosity to the ground. Of course you don’t sign your name, so you’re perfectly safe from legal trouble, right? (Remember, whenever I end sentences with “right?” it always means “wrong,” right? Right! Er, except this time.) Wrong! Your neighbors hire a private e-investigator who tracks the e-mail back to you. Now you’re going to jail for being a terrorist or arsonist or something-ist, and your neighbors are planning to buy your house and paint it black. Avoid this situation by treating e-mail and other online communications with the same legal respect you would regular mail.
- Be careful what you do with your identity on the internet. If you don’t want potential employers, friends and family, or your prosecuting attorney finding your MySpace page filled with stories of your secret past as a ninja pirate assassin working for the KGB, then don’t put your name on the darn thing! It’s now standard procedure for HR departments to do a quick online search of your name to see if anything juicy comes up about your internet escapades. To protect yourself, don’t use your real name for internet message posting unless you’re okay with absolutely anybody finding and reading it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the Lawsuit-Free series, and hopefully the information presented will help you be one of the three people in the world today who won’t be sued sometime during their lives. And remember, I am not a lawyer; this is not legal advice; and as long as you keep checking back with Punny Money for the latest in financial news and tips with a humorous twist, you will always have the right to remain awesome.