The top ten ways to break the law on the Internet

First published 1998.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


The Internet is riddled with crime and iniquity. It must be true, I saw it on TV. And, naturally, the first thing that goes through any right-thinking person's mind when they hear this is - "Cool! I want in!"

Look no further. Here's your guide.

This article will not feature links to relevant sites. But that's what search engines are for, kids.

Oh, yes. This article is for entertainment purposes only. Knowing all this stuff ain't illegal. Doing it is. So don't.

1: Credit card fraud

In the real world, you need the card. On the Internet (and over the phone), you just need the numbers. You can read them from discarded carbons, trick people out of them ("Hi, I'm from SuckerCard International. We think someone might be using your card fraudulently. I'll need you to confirm your card details for me..."), or use one of a number of little programs that generate valid numbers from nowhere. Having ill-gotten goods delivered to your home address is an express ticket to the Big House, but abandoned buildings are plentiful. The problem of Net credit card fraud is serious enough that some banks are refusing to honour any credit card transaction that originates on the Internet, full stop.

2: Copyright infringement

The clearly identifiable legal problem with Internet porn is that it's a big fat flesh-toned copyright violation. All of those pictures scanned out of Hustler and MPEG videos digitised from Euro-Hotties Vol. 45 are damn well not in the public domain. Such Web-posted violations, especially from the major magazines, are now trampled quickly by company lawyers. But there's still a plethora of dubiously legal images on the Web, and hundreds of megabytes of them posted daily to Usenet.

But forget smut. Any spotty 14-year-old can find the Pamela Anderson Lee sex videos. The tricky bit is finding a pirate site that'll give you Photoshop 5, the Total Annihilation II beta and Celine Dion singing Little Red Rooster in MP3 format. Pirate download sites are a constant, confusing churn of changing URLs and odd access times and obscure passwords. If you actually have a life and an income, it's much simpler and, depending on how highly you value your time, probably also much cheaper to actually go and buy the damn software. In Australia, though, cable modem ownership is presently a cheap express ticket to all the illegal smut, software and MP3s you could wish. Telstra isn't even charging for their half-megabyte-per-second cable modem newsgroup access.

3: Drugs!

The widely publicised War On Some Drugs is somewhat undermined by the plethora of Internet sites and discussion fora devoted to them. You can't buy the book "E Is For Ecstasy" in Australia, but you don't need to - it's there on the Web, for free, along with its two equally banned sequels. As is "Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved", for people who like their religious experiences to come on blotting paper, plus countless guides to the synthesis of anything you care to name, marijuana cookbooks and lists of recommended movies to watch when differently conscious.

4: Bombs!

"Now pour in the gunpowder, and hammer the end shut."

I consider instructions like this to be a valuable aid to natural selection, but the relatives of people who blow their hands off following some half-assed bomb recipe they read in the Jolly Roger's Cookbook (available in any number of places on the Web, and highly unreliable) understandably beg to differ.

Remember - posting the Encyclopedia Britannica's entry on trinitrotoluene synthesis is, at worst, a copyright violation. Remember to preface your excerpt with "Teach those lazy buggers in Parliament a lesson with THIS!" in order to make it more likely to land you in court.

5: Booze

Underage? Got a parent's credit card number? Who needs to hang around outside the bottle shop when you can buy your booze online! There are already at least two Australian liquor sellers online, and neither of them can tell how old you really are.

6: Porn

Unfortunately, in Australia, nobody's going to bust you for buying porn over the Internet, or (more likely) viewing it for free.

Unless, of course, it's OBSCENE.

Remember, to be obscene, something has to be found by a court to appeal to the prurient interest, AND depict in an offensive way specifically defined sexual conduct, AND lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Cut this out and keep it handy, to make sure you don't e-mail to the Police Commissioner a picture that's merely indecent.

7: Gambling

For Australians, it's disturbingly difficult to break the law by gambling on the Internet, because it looks as if our country is going to become something of a haven for the activity. Mind you, if you win a pile of money at some online casino in Costa Rica and fail to declare it as income, you might get in trouble. Look on the bright side.


Far and away the most popular flavour of unsolicited commercial e-mail, or "spam", is the good old Markov, or "pyramid" scheme. You (maybe) send five bucks to the person at the top of the list, add your name to the bottom, move everyone up one number and send the amended list and instructions to several friends. Sending chain letters by e-mail does not make them legal. You probably will not go to jail. You probably will not even lose your Internet account, for a first offence. But you will definitely feel like a twit.

9: Government-tweaking

If you go to Cuba you'll find there are lots of things you're not allowed to do on the Net, but since you can't get connected anyway it's a bit of a moot point. China is a much better bet, and closer. Among the very large number of things the Chinese government will not allow people to do on the Internet are lying, spreading rumours, "destroying the order of society", "promoting feudal superstitions", "injuring the reputation of state organs" and "openly insulting other people". With excellent connectivity in Hong Kong, this looks like a prime target.

For an even more thrilling experience, march into a Burmese police station holding a modem aloft and make clear to the uniformed persons that you do not have the express permission of the Ministry of Communications to own said item. You will instantly make yourself eligible for up to fifteen years in jail.

10: Libel

You'd think there would have been tons of e-mail libel cases by now. After all, people call each other names on the Net more often per second than in all the world's parliaments and intersections put together. Unfortunately, Internet defamation law is fuzzy, and person-to-person lawsuits just don't get off the ground. There's U.S. precedent for company-versus-service-provider actions, but you can't start one of those by saying someone's grandma wears army boots.

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)