Chatroulette: The Microcosm of the Internet

-- By LuciaCaltagirone - 31 Jan 2010

Chatroulette, the relatively new website that randomly links users for videochatting, highlights a number of the major legal issues concerning internet usage today. Namely, Chatroulette focuses our attention on user privacy and copyright infringement.

Threats to User Privacy

Chatroulette Map:

The appeal of Chatroulette appears to be due in large part to the perceived anonymity of the encounter. (

What's the point of citing a URL like this? Just link to it. That makes your prose clean to read, and anyone who wants the URL has it.

Users have also expressed feelings of nostalgia using the medium, citing a time when the internet was far less ordered and interactions with other people over the web were chaotic. (see “Chatroulette …also has the sheen of nostalgia. It’s reminiscent of my earliest encounters with the Internet – firing off messages about schoolwork and television shows in AOL chat rooms…”). However, not long after Chatroulette appeared on the scene, the anonymity of its users was threatened by the creation of the Chatroulette map. ( The Chatroulette map publishes screenshots of users as well as their IP addresses and maps their actual geographic location on a Google map. The Chatroulette map immediately raised privacy concerns, prompting the creator of the chat site to consider developing a tool that will allow users to hide their identifying IP address information. ( In fact, the creators of itself have decided to “hide I.P. and host information as some user-identifiable information was found in some entries.”

It would make more sense to use the analytical approach I offered in class, and treat this not as a generic "privacy" question but as the more specific kind of privacy involved, anonymity. The service has its social utility (if the utility is anything greater than novelty) from the creation of anonymous random video chats. But there's a fundamental design flaw in their technology, because they do not route the video streams in a fashion that removes information about the IP address at the endpoint, so anonymity is completely illusory. The conflict between expectation and reality dooms the service.

Publishing Videochats:

Another legal issue presented by Chatroulette (among other sites) is the legality of one user publishing an internet conversation between themselves and another user without the knowledge or authorization of the other user.

Maybe. But "legality" is not the word you mean, probably. In states where surreptitious recording is permissible so long as one party to the conversation knows of the recording's existence, the likelihood is not that the conduct is illegal, but rather that there may be liabilities associated with publication. So you are asking about possible liability exposures. A graduating student should not be making this mistake.

Few courts have ruled on the legality of unauthorized publishing of chatroom conversations, but of those that have, some have ruled that participation in a chatroom chat constitutes automatic consent to the recording of those conversations, based in part on the theory that the users are well aware that these text-based conversations can be easily stored and copied. (

Now we are talking about legality in fact, where the state wiretapping law, unlike that in New York, requires consent to recording from all parties to a conversation. Now the legal issue is whether consent should be presumed.

The fact that Chatroulette conversations are not purely textual, as they would be in an internet chatroom, but rather, are video-based may present a novel legal issue, however. If the legality analysis centers on the users’ expectations as to the permanence of their communications, then it may be too soon to determine what expectations are reasonable in the Chatroulette community.

It does not necessarily follow that the question whether to presume consent is about expectations, or social consensus. Suppose, for example, the service operator says on his front page, "Recording video streams from the net is trivial. You should remember that anyone you speak to may be recording the conversation." Take it a step further, and the service operator requests an indication of consent to record as a condition of registration for the service.

Yet, a court may instead look to the expectations of the internet community as a whole in this analysis, and determine that it is not reasonable to expect communications over the web to remain completely confidential or private, given that internet users are typically aware of the recordability and ease of publication of videos thanks to sites such as YouTube? . However, I would find that argument unconvincing. In the context of telephone conversations, this same argument could be made. Most users of the telephone are aware that there are ways to tap into phone conversations and record the verbal communications between two parties. If we were to extend this same expectations analysis, then all telephone users would consent to the recording and publication of their private telephone conversations, by virtue of knowing about the existence and availability of the technology to record and publish such conversations.

Which is essentially the position in which the states leave the matter, if like New York, they distinguish only between illegal wiretapping of others' conversations, and the recording of a conversation by one of the parties, regardless of actual notice or consent by other parties. That's why you should not have started from "legality" alone, and should have been more analytically careful in your treatment of the issue.

Recently, and illustratively, YouTube? removed a viral video of “Merton: the Chatroulette Improve Piano Player” because of “terms of use violation”. The takedown by YouTube? seems to be due to the fact that the users shown in the video were unaware that they were consenting to recording and publication. (

But YouTube? is taking something down under the DMCA notice-and-takedown procedure, which means that what is being asserted is copyright infringement, not illegal recording. Whether the DMCA procedure is well-designed for use in these circumstances, rather than as a tool of oppression by entertainment companies, which is its originally intended use, we can put on one side. Once again, the service operator could have resolved this matter by making a contractual disposition of the copyright on all conversations (which could have been an assignment of copyright to itself, like a newspaper letters column, all the way to an irrevocable license under Creative Commons terms to make permanent sharing possible).

Copyright Implications:

One of the most fertile areas of legal debate in the internet context is the field of copyright law. The nature of the web makes it incredibly easy for users to infringe copyrights. However, many scholars argue for a change in our culture, which would loosen the laws against copyright infringement on the internet. For our society to be truly free, we must foster a “remix culture”. ( In this opinion piece, Lawrence Lessig argues for the decriminalization of the amateur remix: “We need to restore a copyright law that leaves "amateur creativity" free from regulation…Digital technologies have democratized the ability to create and re-create the culture around us.” Chatroulette is yet another medium that makes this sort of amateur creativity possible, and has the potential to produce what Lessig would consider valuable derivative works. One such example of an amateur derivative work is the immensely popular Chatroulette remix video of Lady Gaga’s single “Telephone”: Chatroulette inspires creative expression among and between strangers, and such expression should be protected through altered copyright laws.

No alteration of copyright law is necessary to achieve that result, as I point out above. You retreated so rapidly to general propositions that you didn't analyze the actual legal material before you.

Despite the bite-sized nature of the interactions on Chatroulette, the site’s impact may be substantial. Chatroulette serves as a self-contained case study of some of the most pressing issues concerning the law and internet.

That's not a conclusion. There should be a conclusion.