Overview of Your Rights and Responsibilities Online

The Internet is a powerful tool for communication. With access to the Internet, anyone can effectively be an international publisher and broadcaster. Many Internet users, however, do not realize that they are publishing to the world and the Internet has potential for misuse. Free access to computing resources is often mistakenly thought to be the equivalent of free speech, and where free speech rights are in turn often mistakenly thought to include the right to do whatever is technically possible.

The rights of academic freedom and freedom of expression do apply to the use of University computing resources. So, too, however, do the responsibilities and limitations associated with those rights. Thus, legitimate use of University computing resources does not extend to whatever is technically possible. In addition, while some restrictions are built into the University's computer operating systems and networks, those restrictions are not the only restrictions on what is permissible. Users of University computing resources must abide by all applicable restrictions, whether or not they are built into the operating system or network and whether or not they can be circumvented by technical means. Moreover, it is not the responsibility of the University to prevent computer users from exceeding those restrictions; rather, it is the computer user's responsibility to know and comply with them. When you're pulled over to the side of the Information Superhighway, "I'm sorry officer - I didn't realize I was over the speed limit" is not a valid defense.

So just what are the applicable restrictions? The answer is - the same laws and policies that apply in every other context. "Cyberspace" is not a separate legal jurisdiction, and it is not exempt from the normal requirements of legal and ethical behavior within the University community. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that conduct that would be illegal or a violation of University policy in the "off-line" world will still be illegal or a violation of University policy when it occurs online. Remember, too, that the online world is not limited to Tufts University. Computer users who engage in electronic communications with persons in other states or countries or on other systems or networks may also be subject to the laws of those other states and countries and the rules and policies of those other systems and networks.

It is impossible to list and describe every law and policy that applies to the use of University computing resources and the Internet - since, by and large, they all do - but the following are some of the ones that most frequently cause problems:


The Scholarly Communication @ Tufts site provides information for faculty, staff, and students about all aspects of the process used by scholars to share and use the results of their and others' research. This site provides answers to your questions about copyright, fair use and open access, including links to additional related Tufts policies.


Exactly how copyright law applies to the Internet is still not entirely clear, but there are some rules of thumb:

  • You may look at another person's web page, even though your computer makes a temporary copy when you do so, but you may not redistribute it or incorporate it into your own web page without permission, except as fair use may allow.
  • You probably may quote all or part of another person's forum post or listserv message in your response to that message, unless the original message says that copying is prohibited.
  • You probably may not copy and redistribute a private e-mail message you have received without the author's permission, except as fair use may allow.
  • You probably may print out a single copy of a web page or of a listserv, or private e-mail message for your own, personal, noncommercial use.
  • You may not post another person's book, article, graphic, image, music, or other such material on your web page or use them in online forums, listservs, or private e-mail messages without permission, except as fair use may allow.
  • You may not download materials and copy or redistribute them without permission, unless the applicable license agreement expressly permits you to do so or unless your particular use would constitute fair use.
  • You may not copy or redistribute software without permission, unless the applicable license agreement expressly permits you to do so.

Libel is the "publication" of a false statement of fact that harms another person's reputation - for example, saying that "John beat up his roommate" or "Mary is a thief" if it isn't true. If a statement doesn't harm the other person's reputation - for example, "Joe got an 'A' on the test" - it's not libel even if it's false. In addition, a statement of pure opinion cannot be libelous - for example, "I don't like John" - but you can't turn a statement of fact into an opinion simply by adding "I think" or "in my opinion" to it. "In my humble opinion (IMHO), John beat up his roommate" is still libelous if John didn't beat up his roommate. If you honestly believed that what you said was true, however, you might not be liable if it later turns out that you were wrong. A libel is "published" whenever it is communicated to a third person. In other words, if you say "Mary is a thief" to anyone other than Mary, you have "published" that libel. That means that almost anything you post or send on the Internet, except an e-mail that you send only to the person about whom you are talking, is "published" for purposes of libel law. A person who has been libeled can sue for whatever damages are caused by the publication of the libel. Since a libel on the Internet could potentially reach millions of people, the damages could be quite large. A good rule of thumb to follow: If you would be upset if someone else made the same statement about you, think carefully before you send or post that statement to the Internet, because it might be libelous.

There are a number of different laws that protect the "right to privacy" in a number of different ways. For example, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a federal statute, it generally is a crime to intercept someone else's private e-mail message or to look into someone else's private computer account without appropriate authorization. The fact that you may have the technical ability to do so, or that the other person may not have properly safeguarded his or her account, does not mean that you have authorization. If you don't know for sure whether you have authorization, you probably don't. Invasion of privacy, like libel, is also a "tort", which means that you can also be sued for monetary damages. In addition to the sorts of things prohibited by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, it can be an invasion of privacy to disclose intensely personal information about another person that that person has chosen not to make public and that the public has no legitimate need or reason to know - for example, the fact that someone has AIDS, if he or she has not revealed that information publicly. Unlike with libel, a statement can be an invasion of privacy even if it is true.

Under both state and federal law, it is a crime to publish, sell, distribute, display, or, in some cases, merely to possess obscene materials or child pornography. These laws also apply equally to the Internet, and a number of people have been prosecuted and convicted for violating them in that context.

The line between what is obscene and what is not is hard to draw with any precision - as one Supreme Court justice said, "I could never succeed in intelligibly" defining obscenity, "[b]ut I know it when I see it" - but the term basically means hard-core pornography that has no literary, artistic, political, or other socially redeeming value. One reason that it so hard to define obscenity is that it depends in part on local community standards; what is considered obscene in one community may not be considered obscene in another. That makes it particularly difficult to determine whether materials on the Internet are obscene, since such materials are, in a sense, everywhere, and it is therefore not enough that the materials are legal wherever you are. In one case, the operators of a bulletin board service in California posted materials that were not considered obscene there, but were convicted of violating the obscenity statutes in Tennessee when the materials were downloaded there.

Child pornography is the visual depiction of minors engaged in sexually explicit activity. Unlike obscenity, child pornography is illegal regardless of whether it has any literary, artistic, political, or other socially redeeming value.

Sexually oriented materials that do not constitute either obscenity or child pornography generally are legal. Still, it is illegal in most cases to provide such materials to minors, and displaying or sending such materials to people who do not wish to see them may be a violation of the University's Sexual Harassment Policy.

Under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and under a variety of similar other state and federal statutes, it can also be a crime to access or use a computer without authorization, to alter data in a computer without authorization, to transmit computer viruses and "worms" over computer networks, to send spam, or to engage in other such activities that negatively affect the operation of the University's computer resources. Engaging in such activities can also make you liable for monetary damages to any person who is harmed by your activities. Again, the fact that you may have the technical ability to do any of these things, or that another computer owner may not have properly safeguarded his or her computer, does not mean that you have authorization. If you don't know for sure whether you have authorization, you probably don't.

Use of University computing resources is also subject to the University's code of student conduct, including academic integrity, the University's Sexual Harassment Policy, and all other generally applicable University policies. Please refer to Tufts University's Information Stewardship Policy for more information.

This Overview was adapted from material prepared by Steven J. McDonald, Associate Legal Counsel for Ohio State University. We wish to thank Mr. McDonald and Ohio State University for permission to use the material.