Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Is it against the law to violate a Web site's terms of service?

        Tech | Internet Basics

Terms of Service and Felony
Before it was modified, a section of Google Chrome's ToS led users to believe that virtually anything they typed belonged to Google. Will you need to hire a lawyer in the near future every time you log onto the Internet?
Before it was modified, a section of Google Chrome's ToS led users to believe that virtually anything they typed belonged to Google. Will you need to hire a lawyer in the near future every time you log onto the Internet?
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

­It's the broadness of the initial procedure and decision in the Drew case that has people worried. Legal experts paying attention to the issue are showing concern over the Drew verdict, and some question how safe the Internet might be for people who, before the MySpace incident, were breaking very minor contracts.

The overall problem is that many terms of service violations seem pretty ordinary, and it's likely that people commit them every day without even being aware of it. And if people did go through the effort of reading a Web site's terms of service, it would take a lot of time and effort. For one, it's estimated that if everyone sat down and read the terms of service for every Web site they accessed, as much as $365 billion would be lost in productivity [source: Anderson]. And while some terms of service are straightforward -- Google users, for instance, essentially agree to not blame the company for any "offensive, indecent or objectionable" content they might come across during search -- many others are full of difficult-to-understand legal jargon.

And there have been misunderstandings in the past that close readers have pointed out. Google, for instance, had to change a section in its terms of service for its new Web browser, Chrome, when some users pointed out a particular aspect in Section 11 of the document. The language stated that Google owned any content you "submitted, posted or displayed" while using the browser. This indicated that any blog posts you made or e-mails you sent, according to the terms of service, belonged to Google. The developers who created the beta version of Chrome, however, had simply copied and pasted the information from its Universal Terms of Service agreement, which requires users to give Google a "license" to user-generated content because of copyright law. Google changed the specific Chrome document and apologized for the incident on its blog [source: Yang].

There are still countless vagaries, however. MySpace users, for example, aren't supposed to post photos of another person without that person's consent. But anyone familiar with the nature of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook might scoff at this, since many users create photo albums without seeking permission from their friends. Companies might not be actively seeking out common ToS violators at the moment, but further interpretation of Drew's case -- it will most likely be appealed and reviewed by the 9th Circuit Court -- may lead to a broader definition of what's illegal over the Internet.


More to Explore