Introduction: The internet and the law

The internet is a network of computers and similar devices that are linked together through the telecommunications network. No one owns it and it has no central location or administration. The internet allows all connected devices to exchange and share data. For most users connection is made through a company that offers internet access. These companies are known as internet service providers (ISPs). Devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers that have a web browser installed allow the user to retrieve webpages that are located on a web server. An IP address identifies the particular device that is connected to the internet. Every device that uses the internet has a unique IP address. The term server or web-servers describes the hardware and related software that are connected to the telecommunications network and form the internet. Webservers are used to host websites, social media platforms, and can provide data storage.

The three types of people or organisations involved in accessing content on the internet are:

1 the content provider, who creates the material, which is then uploaded onto a website;

2 the internet content host (ICH), who provides the website (the space on the internet for this content) and has control over what is uploaded (published). Cloud hosting services are a type of hosting service that use multiple connected servers and enable greater accessibility over a single server being the host;

3 the ISP, who supplies internet carriage services so that the material can be transmitted to individual computers, and then viewed and downloaded by members of the public.

Legal issues relating to internet use are usefully divided into three main functions:

1 the publication of information or provision of content including text, sound, images and film (an example of this provision of content function is Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) where television services are delivered using the internet instead of being delivered through free-to-air, satellite and pay or cable platforms);

2 the sale of goods and services, known generally as e-commerce; and

3 communication and networking services, most commonly email and related services (e.g. Twitter, Voice over Internet Protocols (VoIP) like Skype), and social networking sites (e.g. Facebook).

These functions raise many legal issues including copyright, consumer protection, prohibited content, defamation and privacy, and the legislation that regulates e-commerce and telecommunications.

This chapter deals with the law from the perspective of an individual who uses the internet to find information, publish material, engage in e-commerce, and communicate with others. It also offers guidance on managing children’s internet access.