Regardless of genre, plot, or how much we love making things up, writers learn early on that our stories demand research. For the majority of us, the internet is the first place we turn. Unless of course, first-hand knowledge or experience exists, say a sibling with the same agoraphobia as your protagonist (I swear this is not about you, Sis) or a science professor who taught a student how to cook crystal meth.
But is every subject searchable on the Internet without running afoul of the law? Could we search how to make a lethal nerve agent for an assassin in our next thriller? Or scout out clown pornography to accurately depict an obsessive demon of a wayward priest?
In the United States, almost anything is fair game to search on the Internet. The First Amendment of the Constitution provides citizens with freedom of speech, allowing us to research any darn thing that makes us happy. From apples to politics, porn to zumba, we have the freedom to search the Internet for most any information without it being a crime.
That does not mean certain search terms are not being monitored or will not trigger an investigation, nor does it mean we can engage in illegal activities that involve the Internet and not expect to suffer the legal consequences. For example, searching and viewing child porn, learning to make a bomb used later in an eco-terrorist attack, searching the best way to threaten POTUS, participating in a vorarephilia chat group about a fantasy carried out in real life – all of these online activities involve illegal activities and conspiracies. We might have a right to seek information about these subjects or indulge in a fantasy under the protection of free speech but when we cross the line into engaging in illegal activities or participating in conspiracies to carry out the illegal activities, our actions then become subject to closer scrutiny by law enforcement. Even if a writer who searched how best to chloroform, kidnap, torture, and skin several women, claimed the research was for a sexually, sadistic villain in his next novel, he still might find himself subject to questioning by the FBI as a potential suspect should there be a similar crime or conspiracy under investigation (And why the FBI? Because rarely do the police have time or the money to monitor the internet for questionable search terms).
There are plenty of laws that govern online activities and behaviors. For example, researching information about child porn falls under free speech, but viewing or downloading it is illegal. Or streaming films or downloading music? The action may be legal or illegal depending on where the content is downloaded from, i.e. authorized licensee vs. unauthorized counterfeiter.
Plus, these days, our search history says a lot about who we are and what we do in private. Even if the action of searching is not considered illegal, the browser search could be used as evidence. Something to keep in mind should you need to place your protagonist in hot water. For example, if your character searched “lethal karate blows to the back of the neck” and the wife ends up dying by a similar fashion, the browser search may become evidence in his murder trial. After the Boston Marathon bombing, police paid a visit to a woman in New York due to searches from their home computer for: “pressure cookers” by the wife, “backpacks” by the dad, and “homemade bombs” in articles linked to stories about the Boston terrorist bombing. The one stumbling block with using this type of evidence is proving the one who committed the murder is the one who searched for the info in question.
Information from a suspect’s computer can be collected via a warrant should police have probable cause to believe the browser history contains evidence of a crime (like attempted murder or domestic violence). A prosecutor might subpoena information about a suspect’s search history directly from the search companies and websites accessed by the suspect. Or the police might spy in real-time by using malware as a digital wiretap. In view of the recent CIA cache exposed by WikiLeaks, the last option is not that farfetched.
As our online life becomes more public and traceable, the more we open ourselves to the use of that private information in public. Just another reminder of how little privacy exist online these days. And while at first glance, invading browser search privacy might make sense when used against pedophiles, serial rapists, murders, and terrorists, it does set a precedent for using such information with less egregious crimes. If you are concerned that your privacy is under assault by services that track your searches, you can switch to other privacy-protective search engines.
All of which is helpful when looking for crafty ways to throw a twist into our characters lives. So, research without guilt if you are searching for informational purposes. But if you are doing so because you are engaged in illegal activity, expect the FBI to eventually come knocking.