We all live in an increasingly digital world. We use our cell phones, computers, and tablets daily (if not constantly) and social media connects us to the wider world with the tap of a finger. Laws, too, are always changing as lawmakers respond to new technologies and how people use them. If you combine changing laws with a broad potential audience, the inability to truly delete anything, and perceived anonymity on the Internet, the result is potential trouble if users are not careful. Just as criminal laws regulate how we behave in our homes and communities, criminal laws also regulate how we behave online.
For example, one teen in Nebraska faced child pornography charges after a 14-year-old girl’s parents discovered she had sent him 30 sexually explicit videos and photos of herself, at his request. Although he was ultimately sentenced to probation, he could have faced time in prison and sex offender registration. Every day, adults are convicted of child pornography charges for viewing and sharing images online. A student at Rutgers University was convicted of invasion of privacy and hate crimes after he secretly videotaped his roommate and harassed him online, and a Utah district attorney prosecuted a man for sharing photos of his ex-girlfriend on revenge porn websites. However, it is not hard to stay out of trouble online if you understand and apply some commonsense rules. This article will tell you the most important things you need to know.
One of the best ways to avoid criminal charges is also the most obvious. Be nice. Do not say anything online that you would not say in front of your grandmother. Sure, we all enjoy freedom of speech under the First Amendment, but the First Amendment does not protect any and all speech. If you cannot say anything nice, do not say anything at all.
Saying inappropriate and mean things can lead to charges of harassment. Although not all states currently have laws specifically criminalizing online harassment, more and more states are moving in that direction, often in response to high-profile teen suicides following campaigns of bullying by classmates. Inappropriate statements about a person’s race, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation, or targeting a person for these reasons, can also result in hate crime allegations. Depending on the circumstances, rude or vulgar comments can also result in (civil) charges of sexual harassment or defamation.
For more information on online harassment, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.
Studies show that many teens are unaware that naked photos of people under the age of 18 are considered child pornography. Child pornography laws are tough and carry harsh penalties. In most states, even if the teen depicted took and sent the photo, and even if the person who received the photo is also under the age of 18, it is still child pornography. No matter what your age, do not request, take, or look at nude photos of people under age 18. Think of such photos as kryptonite for law-abiding citizens! If you do receive explicit images of underage children, immediately delete the images or report them to law enforcement. In some (but by no means all) states, this provides a defense to the charge of possession of child pornography.
For more information, see Teen Sexting.
On a similar note, do not engage in any sexually explicit talk (or texting, messaging, or chatting) with anyone under the age of 18. Sexually propositioning a child (or even a person posing as a child under the age of 18) is a crime – child enticement – and like child pornography it carries serious penalties. Many people have been arrested and convicted in sting operations by police officers posing as teens and children that want to have sex with adults.
For more information on this crime, see What is the crime of "Child Enticement?"
When it comes to nude photos, inappropriate remarks, or anything else that you think could offend, the best rule to follow is this: do not share. In many states, distributing hate speech, child pornography, or even adult pornography is a crime. Sharing photos or images of a person without their permission may also be considered invasion of privacy, which can be a crime. California recently criminalized revenge porn (online posting of nude photos of people without their permission), as have roughly half the states.
For more information, see Revenge Porn: Laws and Penalties.
Criminal penalties for online behavior vary based on several factors, including the behavior at issue and state law. However, as a general rule, any sexual crime involving a child (such as child pornography or child enticement) is a felony, punishable by at least a year in state prison. Many sex crimes also require mandatory sex offender registration. Penalties for harassment, hate crimes, and invasion of privacy vary from state to state, and they may be misdemeanors (punishable by up to one year in county or local jail) or felonies.
The non-legal consequences of bad behavior online can be just as serious (or even more serious) than the legal consequences. People who are harassed online or whose private images are shared are often humiliated. Some may become depressed and hurt themselves, and numerous teen have committed suicide following online bullying. For example, one Ohio teen was harassed and taunted after her ex-boyfriend sent a nude photo of her to students at two local schools. She committed suicide shortly after she graduated from high school. Students who take, possess, or share explicit photos of their classmates or who engage in bullying can also get in trouble at school. For adults, engaging in online bullying or sharing explicit photos can result in trouble at work, as well as damage to your reputation.
If you are charged with a crime or facing an investigation as a result of your online behavior, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney who has handled similar cases. An attorney can explain the legal process to you and tell you how your case is likely to fare, depending on the law and the assigned judge and prosecutor. Are you in a good position to plea bargain? Should you go to trial? What is the likely sentence? An attorney can answer these questions and help you obtain the best possible outcome in your case.