Privacy and the Internet

What are the Laws about Privacy and the Internet?

Female crime victimThis page is part of our Guide to Laws about the Internet and Social Media.

Can someone share an email, text message, Facebook message, letter, etc that I sent privately?

Generally it is not illegal to share or post or screenshot a “private” message, as the law does not actually consider these private. Anyone who sends an email, text, facebook, instagram, etc or physical letter loses any expectation of privacy once the email, letter, etc is delivered or sent.1Palmieri v United States (2018)

However, if the parties previously agreed that the messages would remain private and confidential, then it would be a breach of this agreement to share with anyone else, or to publish or publicize them in any way.

What are my rights in my personal data?

Most Americans don’t currently have rights to data about their internet usage, unlike in Europe with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, a new California law gives consumers a “right to be forgotten” meaning a right to see and delete the data a company has on you.

However, if someone hacks, steals or improperly uses your “personally identifiable information” (such as contact information, social security number, etc) or financial data, this could be considered identity theft, which is illegal. See our Guide to Laws about Hacking.

Other than that, your rights with respect to personal data collected by companies on the internet are generally determined by the relevant privacy policies posted by the company. For example, Facebook’s privacy policy sets out what they can and can’t do with your data. This is considered a “contract,” and by using the site, you are agreeing to those terms of the privacy policy. If the company violates the privacy policy, or they are hacked and your data gets leaked, you may be able to obtain monetary compensation by suing the company.

See more about Privacy Rights.

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

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

In the U.S., there is no “right to be forgotten” like in Europe which has its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In general, services like Google and Facebook are not responsible for the content other people create and that ends up on a Google search result or Facebook post, for example. This is because of the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. For more on this, here is a related NPR story.

However, you can most likely sue the person who created the offensive content, based on state laws of defamation (if the person is saying false things about you), or invasion of privacy (if the content involves intimate details of your life that were not otherwise known).

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

No, it only applies to domains that operate inside the European Union (EU). For example, it applies to Google.Fr, but not Google.com.

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

Revenge porn is when you agree to have someone take nude pictures of you, where you have an understanding that the photos will remain private, but later that person posts the photos online (or otherwise sends them to people), intending to cause you emotional harm. As of December 2019, revenge porn is illegal in 46 states + DC.

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

It depends on the state, but generally if you are in a public place, people have the right to take photos or video of you and post them or otherwise use them for noncommercial purposes (not to make money). The definition of what is public vs private is usually based on where people have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” If the photo is taken without the subject’s consent in a place where the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, like at home, this is most likely violating that person’s rights.

But whether in public or not, if someone tries to make money from a photo of you without getting your consent, that is generally not legal.

See more at our Guide to Privacy Rights.

Can someone post my information online?

Generally any information that is already in the public record (such as from non-confidential government documents) can be collected and posted online. However, if the information is not already public, this could be a violation of privacy. This is also known as “doxing.” Specifically, it may be considered the unlawful “public disclosure of private facts” which is the dissemination of truthful private information which a reasonable person would find objectionable.

Privacy for children under the age of 13

Websites that get any information from children under 13 must:2Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, found at U.S. Code Title 15, Section 6501

  • post a “privacy policy” (see more about privacy policies below)
  • notify parents directly before collecting personal data from children, and obtain their consent (parent can stop consenting any time)
  • implement procedures to protect kids’ personal info

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. That is, it targets device users in a certain location, such as a hospital, and shows them certain ads, such as for injury lawyers. It is not explicitly illegal, although some states have successfully cracked down on the practice under state consumer protection laws.

See more about Privacy Law

See more about Internet Law

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