Newsletter > November 2003 > "PERILS IN WEB USE"
PERILS IN WEB USE
Tim Burke, Manley Burke, firstname.lastname@example.org
The World Wide Web and the ability to communicate across it with words, photos and sounds is a marvelous thing. It can be used for great good or it can be used, inadvertently or deliberately, to do great damage.
Consider the following scenarios:
- Members at a fraternity chapter at a school in the deep south decide that some of their members would go to a Halloween costume party in black face as slaves or victims of the Ku Klux Klan. Pictures are taken with someone’s new digital camera and posted on the web for all to see. The party and the fraternity members’ costumes become a controversy of nationwide dimensions.
- A prominent college coach is photographed drinking with students and cozying up to co-eds. Photos of his escapades are posted on the web. He soon loses his job.
- Perhaps it’s the jilted former boyfriend of a member of a particular sorority chapter who seeks his revenge by creating a web site which claims to be the secret web site of the sorority chapter his ex belongs to, complete with pornographic photos claiming to be of members of the chapter with convenient links to hard-core pay-per-view pornographic sites.
One of the benefits is the speed at which information can be communicated. It is also one of its dangers, for once the information is sent from one person to another, the original sender loses all control over what next happens to that information. Virtually instantaneously it can be forwarded, deliberately or accidentally, to the receiver’s e-mail directory.
Fraternity secrets should not be shared on the web. Even if shared with brothers or sisters, there is no guarantee of confidentiality.
Consider the following true story. The member of one fraternity in one part of the country decides that he and some of the active members of his chapter had so much fun at the expense of the chapter’s new members that he e-mails the details of their activities to a brother in another chapter on the other side of the country. In turn, the information is e-mailed by that brother to many of those on his e-mail list. Soon, the original e-mail reaches a fraternity life advisor on one campus who identifies the activity as illegal hazing. That fraternity advisor e-mails the original sender’s information back to the Vice President for Student Affairs at the university where the original sender was a student. The point here is not to protect the secrecy of those who engage in hazing, but to underscore how easily confidentiality can be lost on the Internet.
The deliberate evildoer is another matter. The originator of defamatory material or someone who disseminates information which breaches the privacy rights of an individual or organization is not immune simply because they are using the Internet instead of printing material in a newspaper or other publication or broadcasting it on radio or TV. Depending on the circumstances, defamatory material, like the creation of the pornographic web site described above, may subject the site’s creator to substantial civil liability in a court of law.
Creating a site with a fictitious name may not provide protection to the creator of the site. The company hosting the web site will have information regarding who created the site and how much damage has been done based upon the number of hits the site has received. That information may usually be obtained from the host of the web site by a properly issued subpoena.
The victim of such conduct has the ability to bring defamatory web sites down fairly quickly by contacting the Internet Service Provider, “ISP,” which hosts the site. Contact information for the ISP can usually be obtained either through the address of the site itself, or from information contained in the web site materials. Courts have shown a willingness to require release of an ISP’s customer records, which contain identifying information about individual web site authors and users, under proper circumstances. There is no inviolable expectation of privacy in such records, and ISPs are not overly eager to defend the privacy rights of customers who are engaged in defamatory activities which may create liabilities for the ISP.
The Web is neither a guarantee of the confidentiality of the communications of its users nor a shield of protection for those who deliberately abuse it.