If you ask any commercial lawyer what one of the biggest oversights business owners make is, they will tell you that it is their failure to ensure that their online presence is legally compliant.
By online presence, we are primarily talking about the business’s website in whatever form or forms that may take. It could be that a business has a corporate website, a separate blog, or it may have an online e-commerce site. Whatever type of online property they use, they must realise and appreciate that everything needs to be legally protected.
When we say protected we do not mean they need to take out any kind of insurance, but instead, that they have elements within their websites that cover them against litigation, or them falling foul of the law as it relates to operating online.
The frustrating aspect of this, as any commercial lawyer, will attest to, is that it is not especially difficult to make sure you have all the bases covered when it comes to being compliant and meeting your legal obligations online. The addition of a number of pages with specific text can often be all that it takes to be compliant.
You will undoubtedly be aware of the significant increase in publicity about online privacy and data protection. Well, if you operate any kind of website, especially if it is a commercial one, you need to take account of privacy laws.
This relates to the 1988 Privacy Act, and one of its basic requirements is that if you require people to give you their personal information, you must inform them what information you are collecting, and what it will be used for.
Failure to do so can not only see you guilty of a crime, you could be sued for breach of privacy by any individual whose information you have collected.
Sadly, there are unscrupulous people online who actively seek out websites whose privacy pages are wanting and then deliberately submit personal information with a view to suing that business. It makes you wonder how many businesses settle without ever going to court, simply to save any bad publicity or a potential fine.
Next, we have spam, which is relevant if you plan to collect email addresses and then communicate to prospects and customers via email. You must never send an unsolicited email so always ensure you have consent.
Intellectual property rights are another minefield that many businesses end up in with their websites. In particular, trademarks and copyrighted material cause the most problems. Some businesses use clips from movies, or small pieces of music on their website, little realising they are breaking copyright law.
You can obtain hours of royalty-free music and videos at little cost so there should never be any excuse for getting caught out with a copyright breach.
Finally, we come to commercial transactions made on a website, and with these, the same laws apply, and the same protections exist for customers as they would if they walked into a shop and paid in cash.
You must keep a record of all transactions which are conducted on your website. You should also note that a sale made online is effectively a contract between the website owner and the customers. This is outlined in the Fair Trading Act 1989, and Australian consumer law applies online, every bit as much as it does in the shopping mall.