Guide to Laws About the Internet, Email and Social Media in California

Social media signsThis is a guide to some important internet related laws that generally apply to residents of California and businesses who serve residents of California. Most internet related laws are made at the federal level, so for be sure to check out our Guide to Laws About the Internet in the United States.

As always, speak to a lawyer before taking any major actions (or decisions not to act) based on this information.

1. Privacy and the Internet/Social Media

Is my employer or prospective employer allowed to ask for my personal social media passwords or to have me access my social media while he/she watches?

NO. In California, whether you are an employee or prospective employee, your (prospective) employer may not require or request you to disclose your username or password for any social media, emails, texts or other similar communication. Your employer also may not ask you to access these in their presence so they can see it.1Cal. Labor Code Sec 980

Exceptions: your employer may do these things if part of an investigation into misconduct, or if necessary to access an employer-provided device.

Websites that collect personally identifiable information from people must post a privacy policy.2California Online Privacy and Protection Act, Business & Professions Code 22575-22579

The policy must state what type of information is collected, whether it is shared with others, and if so what type of organizations see the info. The policy must also describe how the website informs users of changes to its privacy policy, and how the website responds to “do not track” requests.

Personally identifiable information includes any of the following: first & last name, address, email address, phone #, Social Security #, any other contact information.

Is there a “right to be forgotten” in California?

Yes. See our Guide to the California Consumer Privacy Act.

If a website gets hacked, and someone gets my personal information, does the website or company need to notify me?

Yes.3Civil Code Sec 1798.82 Companies and websites must notify you when they experience a data breach and someone steals your information, including

  • your name in combination with an account number4including social security #, Driver’s license #, bank account #, credit/debit card #, medical information, or health insurance info
  • your username or email address, in combination with a password

What is online identity theft and is it illegal?

Identity theft is when someone takes your personal information, such as your name, social security number, or financial information, and uses it for an illegal purpose. Identity thieves may try to open credit or loan accounts with your information, or could generally harm your reputation. All of this can happen either online or offline, and is illegal in California.5Penal Code starting at sec 530.5

Is it illegal to post nude photos of someone on the Internet?

It is illegal to take nude photos of someone without that person’s consent (unless the person is nude in public).6Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.8(b)

  • Even if you didn’t take the photos, it’s illegal to pay the person who took the photos, knowing that the pictures were taken in violation of the person’s privacy, and then post the pictures online.7Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.8(f)(1)
  • It is NOT illegal for a different person to repost the photos once they have already been posted.8Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.8(f)(3)
  • Revenge porn: If you agree to have someone take nude pictures of you, where you have an understanding that the photos will remain private, it is illegal for that person to then post the photos online (or otherwise send them to people) intending to cause you emotional harm.9SB255, codified at Cal Penal Code Sec 647(j) It is a crime with the possibility of up to 6 months in jail and/or $1,000 fine; may suspend driver license. You can also sue a person for it beginning July 1, 2015.10AB2643, to be codified at Cal Civil Code Sec 1708.85

What should I know about privacy of children on the Internet?

See our Guide to Laws for Parents.


2. Hacking & Unauthorized access

Help! I think I’ve been hacked! What do I do?

Hacking generally is defined as “unauthorized access” or exceeding authorized access to a computer, server, or other device such as a cell phone. It is also illegal to threaten to hack someone.1118 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(7); Cal Penal Code Sec 502 The penalties are up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $15,000.

If you have evidence of a hacking and can identify who did it (or is continuing to do it), the law allows you to get authorities to take immediate action to disable the hacker. These laws come are found mostly in the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act. Contact local law enforcement or the Internet Criminal Complaint Center (see below).

Also if you gave your personal information to a company and they got hacked, they must notify you.12Civil Code Sec 1798.82

See more about hacking

What is ransomware and is it illegal?

Ransomware is software that a person secretly installs remotely on another person’s computer. This is illegal under federal and California state computer crime laws, but California also has a specific anti-ransomware law.13Cal Penal Code 523

3. Posting certain content online

Is it illegal to post video of a violent act online?

If a person is found to have encouraged or facilitated the violence, posting the video may increase the punishment.14Section 667.95 of the California Penal Code

What else can or can’t I post online?

See more at our Guide to Laws about the Internet & Social Media in the U.S.

4. Internet Service Providers & Net Neutrality

Can my internet service provider (ISP) charge me different rates based on the websites I visit or even slow down or block certain websites?

Starting January 1, 2019, ISPs in California may NOT do this. California has passed a law to enforce “net neutrality,” which means internet service providers (ISPs) in California are prohibited from blocking, throttling or otherwise hindering access to online content. ISPs also may not favor some websites over others by charging for faster speeds.

This essentially reset the regulations for California to those effective during the Obama administration. The Trump administration, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), repealed net neutrality federally, allowing ISPs to have more control over the content consumers can access. But as more states, including Washington and Oregon, pass state laws enforcing net neutrality, the federal government is fighting these laws, saying only it has the authority to make laws in this area. We’ll keep you updated on this.

5. Other

As mentioned above, most internet regulations are made at the federal level so please see our Guide to Laws About the Internet in the United States for additional information on the following:

Email, spam, junk mail, free speech and the internet/ social media, jamming or blocking wi-fi or cell, cyberstalking, copyright, hacking, online shopping, false or misleading advertising online, cybersquatting, user generated content, and more.

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