Internet & Social Media

Guide to Laws about the Internet, Social Media, and Email in the United States

Social media signs

This page is a guide to federal laws and regulations about the internet. Your state may provide additional protections in some of these areas, so be sure to check your state’s laws here. (For California see our state guide here). For more info on how federal, state, and local laws interact, see our Legal Basics. And as always, speak to a lawyer before taking any major actions (or decisions not to act) based on this information.

1. Posting on social media

Can a social media platform like Twitter or Facebook legally ban or censor people? Isn’t that a violation of the 1st amendment?

A private (non government) business such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, etc. is generally NOT subject to the 1st amendment. The 1st amendment, as with most of the U.S. Constitution, applies to the government, not to private individuals or businesses. Thus, they can ban or censor anything or anyone they want, as long as it complies with their own policies (terms of service, etc).

However, this makes these companies VERY powerful, perhaps too powerful (as even the companies themselves admit). The government has the power to regulate social media companies to limit their power to censor speech. However, Congress has not done so.

What can or can’t I post online? Can I post someone else’s picture, video, or writing on my social media?

In general you can’t use or distribute someone else’s content without their permission. See our Guide to Laws about Posting Online.

Is my employer allowed to restrict my right to use my personal social media on my own time? Can I be fired for what I post online?

Yes, in certain circumstances. See our Guide to Laws about Posting Online.

Is it illegal to make threats on social media?

It depends on how serious it is. See our Guide to Laws about Posting Online.

Can a government official block people from viewing or commenting on their social media account?

No. See our Guide to Free Speech for an explanation.

User generated content: Is a website or social media platform (like facebook) legally responsible for the comments or posts by its users?

Generally, no. See our Guide to Laws about User Generated Content.

Are deepfakes illegal?

See our Guide to Laws about Posting Online.

2. Cyber harassment and cyberstalking

Is online harassment illegal?

As discussed above, a serious threat of violence against a specific person is illegal. But it’s often hard to tell whether the threat is serious or not. If it’s unclear, it probably will be considered “free speech” and thus not illegal.

For other forms of harassment, see here. (See California here).

What is cyberstalking? Is it illegal?

Cyberstalking is when someone repeatedly or systematically harasses another person online. You have the right to protection against stalking and cyberstalking that makes you fear for your life or health. The police have an obligation to investigate any such stalking, and if they find a credible threat, to prosecute the offender. (Unfortunately, if the offender lives outside the U.S., there is little law enforcement can do at this time).118 U.S. Code Sec 2261A

3. Privacy and the Internet/Social Media

TIP: To take more control over your data, try the new Brave browser.

What are my rights in my personal data?

See our Guide to Laws about Privacy and the Internet.

If someone says terrible things or very intimate things about me online, can I get that taken down?

Maybe. See our Guide to Laws about Privacy and the Internet.

Does GDPR apply to the U.S. at all?

No. See our Guide to Laws about Privacy and the Internet.

What is “revenge porn”? and is it illegal? 

Female crime victim

As of December 2019, revenge porn is illegal in 46 states + DC. See our Guide to Laws about Privacy and the Internet.

Can someone post a picture or video of me that I don’t like?

Maybe. See our Guide to Laws about Privacy and the Internet.

Can someone post my information online?

If it is publicly available or public record, yes. See our Guide to Laws about Privacy and the Internet.

What are the rules on privacy for children under the age of 13?

See our Guide to Laws about Privacy and the Internet.

What is geofencing and is it illegal?

Geo-fencing, aka, use of a “digital fence,” or “geo-targeting,” is used for many purposes, a predominant one being for marketing purposes. See more at our Guide to Laws about Privacy and the Internet.


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4. Hacking & Unauthorized Access

What exactly is hacking?

Hacking generally is defined as “unauthorized access” or exceeding authorized access to a computer, account, server, or other device such as a cell phone. See more at our Guide to Laws about Hacking.

What is ransomware and is it illegal?

Ransomware is software that a person secretly installs remotely on another person’s computer which could destroy or download the computer’s data. See more at our Guide to Laws about Hacking.

What is phishing and is it illegal?

Phishing is where someone creates a deceptive email or text message that looks like it is from a reputable person or company, in an attempt to get the victim to give out their personal or financial information. See more at our Guide to Laws about Hacking.

5. Email & Spam

Can a company or organization send me spam or junk emails?

A company CAN send you unsolicited commercial email, but the email must:2CAN SPAM Act, 15 U.S. Code Chapter 103

  • identify that the message is an advertisement
  • include a valid, physical address of the sender
  • provide a way to easily opt-out of future emails (like an “unsubscribe” link). Once you opt-out, they can’t email you again unless you explicitly give them permission.
  • not be deceptive or abusive

Keep in mind that an email related to a transaction or prior business relationship you have with the company is NOT considered “spam” under the law and is not subject to the above requirements.

Can a political organization or campaign send me spam or junk emails?

Yes. A political or advocacy organization is generally not subject to the rules on spamming. These messages are also generally protected by the 1st amendment.

What is email “spoofing” and is it illegal?

Email spoofing is sending emails to people from a forged email address in order to mislead the recipient and make it appear that the email is from someone else. This practice is generally illegal as a form of online “wire fraud.”318 USC 1343

Is it illegal to “harvest” email addresses or generate random email addresses hoping to get a valid one?

Yes.

See more on email regulations at the FTC compliance guide and an FTC faq


6. Jamming wi-fi or cell

Is it illegal to block or jam someone’s wifi or cell service?

Yes. It is illegal for any person or company to jam, block, or interfere with another’s Wi-fi or cell signal.447 U.S.C. Sec 333 See FCC’s jammer enforcement.

7. Rights in Your Photos, Video, and other Content

Do I have rights to content I create and put on the internet or social media?

You might. See our Guide to Photos, Videos, and other Content Online.

8. Online shopping & consumer rights

What laws do I need to know when shopping online?

See our Guide to Laws for Online Shopping.

9. Cybersquatting

What is cybersquatting? What is typosquatting? Is it illegal?

See our Legal Guide to Creating and Maintaining a Website

10. Internet Service Providers & Net Neutrality

Can my internet service provider (ISP) charge me different rates based on the websites I visit or even slow down or block certain websites?

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

In most states (*except for CaliforniaWashington, Oregon, and Vermont as of October 2018), yes they can. This is because the federal government no longer enforces “Net Neutrality” which prohibited internet service providers (such as cable or cell phone company) from treating data differently based on the content. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed net neutrality and now allows ISPs to have more control over the content consumers can access. ISPs can now create pricing structures similar to cable TV packages, or simply make it much slower and more difficult to access (or even block) certain websites or data. The repeal of Net Neutrality and the deregulation of ISPs has been called “open internet” by conservatives and other opponents of Net Neutrality. The FCC refers to it as the Restoring Internet Freedom Order.

*Note: CaliforniaWashington, Oregon, and Vermont have passed state laws enforcing net neutrality, and many others are working to do the same.5However, the FCC repeal order included a preemption clause which means that states possibly don’t have legal grounds to enforce net neutrality; stay tuned on this Also, 22 states have sued to block the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. We will keep you updated on how that goes.

I have a website. Can an ISP charge me for the right to allow its customers to access my website?

See our Legal Guide to Creating and Maintaining a Website

11. Terms of Service and Privacy Policy

What is a “Terms of Service” or TOS? What is a Privacy Policy?

See our Guide to the Laws about Terms of Service and Privacy Policy


Resources

TIP: To take more control over your data and privacy, try the new Brave browser.6Note: If you click on one of our affiliate links, we may get a commission. Thank you for helping us democratize the law.

If you are creating a website, we recommend BlueHost. We have used them for years and are very happy with the service!7Note: If you click on one of our affiliate links, we may get a commission. Thank you for helping us democratize the law.

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