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

By: John Fuller

Almost every Internet service has a terms of service outlined somewhere on its Web site, although chances are not many people take the time to read through it. Could something happen if you violate any of the terms? See more computer pictures.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

For many of us, the Internet is an easy, accessible avenue for getting information and taking advantage of convenient services like online booksellers or bank accounts. Shopping sites let us search for goods to purchase, while most banks have their own sites for customers to keep track of their money. It can also be a source of leisure and fun. Sites with a focus on social interaction like Facebook and MySpace let us keep in touch with friends by sending messages and sharing links. Chances are you've seen several videos on YouTube, and maybe you've even uploaded some of your own content for other people to watch. Others buy their music from iTunes and store MP3s on their computers.

Online services have been around long enough for some of them to become household names. In fact, visiting these sites is a natural part of everyday life for most Internet users. But have you ever had the feeling that you're doing something wrong when you're using one?


­One thing almost every legitimate Web site has, whether it's Facebook, Hulu or Google, is what's called the terms of service agreement, or ToS. It's different for every site, but, simply put, a terms of service agreement is a compact you make with a company while you use that company's Web site. It defines the relationship you have with the company, including a set of rules that lays out clearly what you can and can't do with the site.

So what happens if you break one of those rules?


Terms of Service: Lori Drew and Unauthorized Access

Decisions handed down in the infamous Lori Drew case have led some people to worry about what it now means to violate a Web site's Terms of Service.
Decisions handed down in the infamous Lori Drew case have led some people to worry about what it now means to violate a Web site's Terms of Service.
AP Photo/Nick Ut

When people use the Internet in a typical manner -- reading and sending e-mails, checking the news, watching some videos -- they don't put too much thought into the act. But did you ever think using the Internet could turn you into a felon?

­The big story that has many users asking this question involves the social networking Web site MySpace. Although the site has developed a bad reputation for being an easy place for stalkers and predators to create profiles and easily communicate with other members, one event in 2006 caused a storm of outrage across the Internet. When Lori Drew, a 49-year-old parent from Missouri, grew concerned after a 13-year-old girl from her neighborhood, Megan Meier, stopped being friends with Drew's daughter, she used unconventional methods to address the situation. Drew, her daughter and an 18-year-old employee of Drew's created a fake profile on MySpace under the name "Josh Evans." With the phony personality, the three befriended Megan over the Web site, only to bully her with insulting messages. Distraught by the attacks, Megan committed suicide by hanging herself in her closet. The Drew family had been aware that Megan was taking medication for depression.


Because the MySpace servers are located in Los Angeles, a California attorney, Thomas O'Brian, stepped in to charge Drew with violating criminal law. O'Brian argued that by using a phony profile, Drew was violating MySpace's Terms of Service, which state that people must offer "truthful and accurate" information about themselves. Within this violation, Drew was also in violation of "unauthorized access" to MySpace's services, which breaks federal law laid out in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Being guilty of this kind of "unauthorized access" is simply a misdemeanor. But if the act is "in furtherance" of another kind of illegal act, the charge could suddenly turn into a felony. Drew escaped conviction of a felony, but in November 2008, she was convicted on three misdemeanor counts of computer hacking [source: Zetter]. So what does this mean for the everyday user?


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.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Barker, Tim. "Lori Drew cyberbullying case raises profile of 'terms of service' agreements." Nov. 30, 2008. (Feb. 2, 2009)
  • Collins, Lauren. "Friend game." The New Yorker. Jan. 21, 2008. (Feb. 2, 2009)
  • Kerr, Orin. "What does the Lori Drew verdict mean?" The Volokh Conspiracy. Nov. 26, 2008. (Feb. 2, 2009)
  • Sanchez, Julian. "Lori Drew verdict in: No felonies, but TOS violations are a federal crime." Ars Technica. Nov. 26, 2008. (Feb. 2, 2009) are-a-federal-crime.ars
  • Sanchez, Julian. "Does the Drew verdict make ToS breakers potential felons?" Ars Technica. Dec. 1, 2008. (Feb. 2, 2009) to-break-tos.ars
  • Yang, Mike. "Update to Google Chrome's terms of service." The Official Google Blog. Sept. 4, 2008. (Feb. 2, 2009).
  • Zetter, Kim. "Judge considers throwing out Lori Drew case." Nov. 21, 2008. (Feb. 2, 2009)
  • Zetter, Kim. "Lori Drew Not Guilty of Felonies in Landmark Cyberbullying Trial." Nov. 26, 2008. (Feb. 17, 2009)