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Cyber law explained

cyber law worldThe internet has transformed the world in the last 20 years. But how has the law kept up?

Old laws...

The internet has changed how old laws need to be enforced. An example of this is copyright law: people can now download illegally-copied music and films from the internet.

Many illegal activities are harder to detect or prosecute when they happen online. Users are often anonymous, so even when crimes can be traced it is often only to a computer or connection, not to a person.

It can also be difficult to know which laws apply online. For example, a person in the UK might sell something to a person in the USA using a website whose server (the computer on which a website is stored) is in Japan. In this case, the laws of all three countries might apply.

Some people have tried to exploit this fact. From 2000 to 2008, a company called HavenCo ran servers on an old navy platform in the North Sea. Because this platform had been declared a country (SeaLand), websites hosted here were supposedly free from laws like copyright.

The most recent attempt to tackle these problems, the Digital Economy Act, caused controversy when it was rushed through parliament. 

...and new laws

The internet also requires new laws to cover things like viruses and hacking.

In the UK, these are mainly covered by the Computer Misuse Act. This makes it a criminal offence to perform "any unauthorised act" to access or damage a computer or the data on it.

However, as with other laws, different country’s laws can apply to online activity. The most famous example is Gary McKinnon, who hacked into US military computers. Although he is British, there is a legal argument over whether he should be tried in the UK or the US.

Online rights

Personal rights face the same kind confusion in the digital age. For example, most online shoppers don’t know that they have the right to return most goods bought online within seven days of purchase. Similarly, most people are unaware of what can and can’t be done with personal information given out online.

Internet users can also be caught out by “Terms of Use” agreements. As an April Fool, the online shop GameStation added a line to their Terms and Conditions page saying that anyone who clicked “I agree” had to give the site their “immortal soul”. According to the company, none of the 7,500 people who used the site noticed.