Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Employers and small businesses need to beware of legal pitfalls with their computing and Internet practices


Bill Detwiler offers a video on the Tech Republic blogs, “Three Ways You Might Be Breaking the Law with Your Computer, the video belonging to the “IT Dojo” series. The primary link, which plays the 7-minute video, is here.

He also gives a secondary link, on the same blog, of a list of “ten things” written by Debra Littlejohn Shinder.

Detwiler takes the caution to note that he is not a lawyer and is not giving legal advice.

Detwiler’s main concern is for employees of a business, which could be a small business, making violations of the law for which an employer could be held legally responsible.

One concern is well known, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. He warns that the ownership of circumvention tools is itself a violation, and the presence of such tools on an employee's computer or on the employer's premises could cause liability for the boss. The US Copyright Office Summary is here.

A second act is the No Electronic Theft (or NET) act, which makes electronic theft a crime regardless of whether done for monetary gain. This refers to 17 and 18 USC. The Department of Justice has a link here. This law makes making and keeping illegal copies of copyrighted material a violation even if not posted on the Internet or offered commercially. The typical example is making illegal copies of DVD’s in violation of the FBI warning on most DVD’s. Theoretically it’s illegal to make a copy on your computer of a copyrighted story even if you don’t post it. A better known example is making illegal copies of software, which in the early 1990s was often done just with floppies. (“Microsoft often writes on its software CD’s: do not make copies of this CD”.) For example, it’s at least technically illegal to make a copy of connectivity software to give to an employee to take home to be on call. (This would happen even in my own office in the early 1990s until it caused controversy and the practice was stopped by management.) You have to purchase a properly licensed copy. I know from some personal circumstances there could be a legal issue in some cases over who owns the computer from which the oncall support is done (and now that becomes a relevant question in protecting the privacy of the employer’s consumers – does the employee have a working firewall at home, etc.).

In general these are concerns for employers and businesses. They could be concerns for very small businesses or perhaps even solo individuals (especially self-employed contractors who work from home). So far we haven’t heard of the Software Publisher’s Association auditing the computers of for-pay bloggers, but I suppose it could happen. More likely, a software vendor can detect the use of a pirated copy of software with various centralized detection tools.

Another warning in the video concerns the legal right of Homeland Security of customs to search and even seize laptops, cell phones and similar devices at border crossings.

Finally, the video warns about a bill in Congress, HR 4279 “Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act of 2008,” also called “Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008” link here on govtrack.

I note that as far back as 1985, when I worked for Chilton (a credit reporting company in Dallas) we were warned about the Texas computer crimes law whenever we signed on to the mainframe.

Also: Advisory about New Scam by email:

In an unrelated story, the NBC Today show today reported a scam whereby phishers offer rental keys to people, desperate affordable housing, for who send them money, for houses not even on the rental market.

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