You might be breaking the law online and not even know it

    If you’ve ever uploaded a video to YouTube, you know how fast it will be flagged if there’s even a hint of a copyrighted song playing in the background.

    If you’re shaking your head, you’re not alone. There are many things you shouldn’t do online. Some are just plain dangerous.

    Benign actions can put your info in the hands of clever criminals. Take your phone number.

    Before we dive into my list of illegal online activities, I must remind you: I’m not a lawyer. Use your best judgment. 

    Getting movies for free 

    This illegal activity shouldn’t be a surprise. Downloading a movie — or album, eBook, audiobook, or another piece of media — from a torrenting site is a no-go. You hear a lot less about torrenting than in years past, given how easy it is to stream just about anything. 

    Still, people flock to download copies of newly released movies. Go to a torrenting site, hit download, and you’re just as likely to get a shaky, dubbed version of what you want to watch as you are the real thing.  

    It could get worse. Watch the mail for a warning notice when your ISP detects you have downloaded copyright-protected content. If you don’t knock it off, they could cancel your service altogether as well as alert the authorities. 

    Think twice before deciding to download a movie illegally online.
    Getty Images

    Here’s something else to consider. Torrents are a common vector for spreading malware. Stay safe and only use reputable apps and services that have the right to show you what you want to watch.  

    Using images on your site or videos 

    Unless you have express permission or know for sure that a photo is in the public domain, it’s not yours to use or share online. It’s unlikely you’re going to get nailed for copyright infringement by posting a meme on Facebook. However, be especially careful when posting images to your website or using images in your videos. 

    At best, you’ll get a slap on the wrist. At worst, you could end up with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars for posting someone else’s work without permission or credit. 

    If you’re going to Google Images, typing in a search term, and pulling down the best photos that pop up, you’re going to get into trouble eventually.

    Use caution before sharing a photo online — unless you have permission.
    Use caution before sharing a photo online — unless you have permission.
    Getty Images

    Bypassing paywalls 

    Years ago, you could access most news sites online for free. Today, you’re hit with paywalls on most major sites. Some of us get out our credit cards and often pay for the sites we visit. 

    Others find clever ways around the paywalls, like browser extensions or other tricks. Before you celebrate, know that it’s illegal. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act says you cannot go around technology meant to restrict access to copyrighted material. 

    Sharing passwords 

    Raise your hand if you have ever shared a password for a streaming service or other subscription. Not only is that against the terms you agreed to when you signed up, but it might also be illegal. Depending on how you interpret it, the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act implies using someone else’s passwords is a federal crime. 

    Now, don’t expect Netflix to come knocking at your door. Things are changing. Netflix is starting to stop people from mooching off accounts. 

    Sharing your password with somebody else may technically be illegal.
    Sharing your password with somebody else may technically be illegal.
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    Using particular search terms 

    There are some things you should not search for online. You can guess, but the list includes child abuse materials, hiring the services of a criminal and steps to make a bomb. 

    Downloading YouTube videos 

    Maybe you find a video that perfectly explains a subject you’re trying to learn. You download the video so you can reference it again later. No harm, right? Not so fast. 

    According to YouTube’s terms of service, you cannot download content without express permission from the creator. And, of course, standard copyright laws apply, too. 

    Videos that fall into the Public Domain, Creative Commons and CopyLeft are fair game for downloading, though you could still be violating YouTube’s Terms of Service. 

    Stick to adding videos you want to come back to a playlist.


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