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Online legal protection

It's important to know how the law protects you when you go about your daily life online. For many people, the internet is an integral part of their daily lives. They conduct business, do their shopping, carry out banking and other financial activities, participate in educational activities and socialise online. In most circumstances, the internet is a safe and effective tool. It is, however, sensible to be aware of the risks that the online world poses, and to take some basic precautions to protect against them.

Privacy and the protection of personal data online

Identity thieves have devised various means of collecting personal information over the internet, which may include tricking people into providing personal information or hacking or otherwise intercepting internet communications to extract such information.

Your best protection against these threats are (i) a good software package, protecting your computer from intrusions and protecting you from phishing and similar activities; and (ii) thinking twice before entering personal data online or emailing it to someone.

Under the Data Protection Act, anyone collecting your personal information is required to tell you of the purpose for which your information will be used and to use it only for that purpose. You have the right to request that any organisation that holds your personal data reveal to you what information of yours it holds (although they may charge you a reasonable fee for doing so). If an organisation fails to comply with your request, you can report the organisation to the Information Commissioner's Office.

There are commercial organisations that will, for a fee, monitor the use of your information, let you know of threats they identify and provide you with some level of insurance cover for identity theft.

A good security software package will protect your computer from most threats, such as viruses or programs designed to extract data from your computer. Frequently, such software will also enable you to evaluate the security of websites such as online shopping sites before you enter credit card information and other personal data.

Protecting your reputation

Although it is easy to see how well-known businesses and celebrities might have their reputations damaged by irresponsible or reckless online allegations, private individuals can also face similar concerns. Message boards, chat rooms and social networking sites can be informative, fun and entertaining venues for free speech and opinion. But when abused, they can also serve as platforms for the circulation of malicious and hurtful rumours.

If you are concerned about online material that may damage your reputation, there are steps that you can take. For instance, you can ask an internet service provider (ISP) that is hosting a particular item to take it down. If the material is defamatory or obscene, it is likely that the ISP will promptly remove it. Frequently, social networking and other hosting sites will have procedures for this.

It is also possible to hire a service to monitor the internet and identify potential threats to your reputation. Generally, those services will also seek to remove damaging material if you request it.

Defamation law applies to online material, so if someone has published defamatory material about you online, you may have a valid defamation claim against that person.

Staying Safe Online

There are a number of things a person can do to guard against online threats. Essentially, these fall into two categories: (i) precautions to steer clear of potential threats, and (ii) responding appropriately when a threat arises.

Threats can take a number of forms, such as cyber-bullying and harassment, or even threats to personal security by someone who is using your online information to stalk you. Sometimes, they can be remedied simply -- for instance, by blocking the sender of annoying emails or using the privacy features on a social networking site to exclude someone who is bothering you. In other cases, you may need to take more serious action and contact the relevant ISP or even the police.

Liability for copyright infringement

The technology available today enables a person to copy and distribute music, films, games, software and other copyrighted material, and to do so quickly and at virtually no cost. So for some people, it is tempting to use peer-to-peer websites to get copyrighted material for free, rather than paying for it.

There is, however, some risk involved in taking copyrighted material without paying for it. The copyright holder (or an organisation representing the copyright holder) can track you down and seek compensation for copyright infringement. That could be costly and potentially embarrassing. Frequently copyright holders will seek to hold parents responsible for material that their children obtain in breach of copyright. So it is sensible for parents to make their children aware of copyright law, and the consequences of breaching it.

Scams and fraudulent activity

Online scams and other illegitimate activity are often disguised. Sometimes a "special offer" pop-up advertisement that looks too good to be true will actually turn out be a mechanism phishing for personal information or access to your computer. The seasoned computer user will recognise these instantly, but children or those less experienced with the online world may be taken in. Heads of households with children or other vulnerable people should help generate an awareness of such scams and similar threats.

The Citizens Advice guide has an extensive list of common scams and also has an online facility for reporting scams. If you have become a victim of a criminal scam (for instance, if a scammer has stolen money from you), you should make a report to your local police.

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