Understanding the Laws of the Digital Jungle

by in Articles on 9th Dec 2010 · 1 Comment

While the subjects of design and development are things we regularly enjoy talking about, the issue of how law affects us as professionals doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should do. While the web may be a place of free speech, diversity and competition there are a few constant issues which designers and developers alike need to be aware of if only to not do anything which might put them into a dispute. The aim of this article is to simply highlight the issues you may encounter.

Understanding the Laws of the Digital Jungle
Image credit: John Althouse Cohen


Note: For the point of this piece it’s essential that I provide a disclaimer saying that I am not a lawyer or legal professional. I am simply a freelancer offering their insights and nothing I say is to be taken “as-is”. If you do have an issue, I urge you to seek assistance from a qualified legal professional.

Rights and Obligations

The web can be a scary place with the lawsuits which constantly rage on behind the scenes. While the public’s knowledge of how law affects them online can be somewhat confused, it’s important that we as service providers respect the laws which exist and ensure that we safeguard both our customers and (more importantly) ourselves. As a web designer there are several factors which do require a bit of recognition and it’s up to you as a professional to know your obligations and rights.

Rights and Obligations
Image credit: crationc

Figure 1: The Internet isn’t free from the law, so beware if you break it!

Below we shall cover very briefly the types of laws that can affect you and the reasons why you need to know about it. Because law is a complicated subject you’re going to need to research the subject further and if you feel confused or worried about anything, get some proper advice from someone who’s well versed in Internet law. Hopefully the recognition of the below will give you the knowledge you need to get started and perhaps save you a lot of potential hassle in the future!

Intellectual Property

Of the many areas of law which affect the field of web design and development, arguably the most prominent is intellectual property. In essence, this covers things like copyright, trademarks, patents, cyber squatting (domain disputes) and to a lesser extent, issues such as plagiarism. As a designer or developer, you need to be aware of intellectual property because it governs what you are legally allowed to use in terms of other peoples content and even what denotes fair use in your work.

Intellectual Property
Image credit: PugnoM

Figure 2: Copyright confuses lots of people, which is worrying for publishers.

From the perspective of the publisher, you don’t want people misappropriating your name or brand, you don’t want them stealing your content, you don’t want them taking your domain and you want to control how and where your stuff appears. Knowing about IP law is of critical importance to not only helping your visitors know how they can use what you provide, but also on your own behalf to deal with sites that use your materials without permission such as issuing takedown notices.

You’re going to need to know the difference between the licensing models such as copyright, copyleft, creative commons, public domain, open source, royalty free as they assign different rights for usage. You’ll also need to know what constitutes fair use, gaining and granting permissions for use (dumping a credit without a license to use an image won’t work). All things considered, it’s very important to know about intellectual property to deal with e-theft and to avoid those lawsuits.

Discrimination

Another factor which has implications within the law are matters of discrimination or practices that may leave you in a state of libel such as if you unfairly brand someone in business. Accessibility on the web has become quite a whirlwind in how many people have suddenly been shocked into the realisation of how many visitors they may be losing as well as the legal issues that may occur. Knowing how to avoid portraying a business in that manner is critical in the peacekeeping process.

Discrimination
Image credit: Minimalist Stuff

Figure 3: Discriminating against the disabled is not a good thing.

Regarding the issues of libel or defamation, just like you don’t want people making unfair comments about you and your business either for their own benefit or simply to hurt your image, its worth knowing about how what you say could leave you in trouble especially for bloggers. While it’s great that we have the right to free speech, it comes with responsibilities and knowing how to avoid unfair business practices and how to deal with offensive material is an unfortunate but necessary step.

As for accessibility, doing what is in your visitor’s best interest’s serves your own objectives as you can gain more customers if you address their immediate needs. Disability is a big issue on the web and with the various anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Disability Discrimination Act that make the failure to serve less able individuals online as illegal as refusing them entry to a physical store, it’s important that you know how to make your site accessible!

Data Protection

Another aspect of law that all designers and developers need to be aware of is data protection. This area of law has several implications regarding how you store information (such as security issues on your hosting and how you deal with the problems), what you store and make visible (which has the usual privacy implications) and even the way in which you make use of data such as spamming your poor customers. Hopefully you won’t devalue your customers in such a way, but it can happen!

Data Protection
Image credit: Simon Lieschke

Figure 4: If passwords aren’t secure, hacking can quickly occur.

Your visitors are only going to be loyal as long as you maintain a level of trust and good standing with them. Many countries have specific and quite strict laws regarding the security measures you must implement when storing any visitor’s data as there could be serious implications if credit card details accidentally go public. You need to know about data protection laws, security protocols such as the FTC’s FIP’s guidelines and any other relative issues that may affect how and what you can retain.

Privacy has also gained some legal traction since the Facebook fiasco. While knowing how to build a good privacy control for your visitors will help reduce such issues (as will a good policy), there may be serious implications if you violate child protection laws (such as COPPA) in social areas or adult and gambling sites. In addition, contacting individuals without consent (known as spam) or selling it on could lead to disputes. You need to be aware of your rights and obligations in these matters.

Business Issues

If you are a freelancer or work / run a business, there are plenty of other potential legal issues which may affect your site and services. As an example, things become more complex as you start earning money such as declaring it in taxes or if you start trading or serving visitors internationally which tends to happen on the web. If you trade or do business in a different country to your own (as an example) you need to observe any specific laws that country lays out – quite a scary thought right?

Business Issues
Image credit: shho

Figure 5: Contracts are a commonly used document in web design work.

Beyond the need to follow regional and international laws, you’ll need to follow laws relating to businesses such as taxation, declaring earnings, hiring, environmental issues if you have an office and consumer law relating to the laws which protect consumers from things like fraud. There are plenty of things that can help you such as offering a returns policy, guarantees and having good customer support, but you need to know any requirements set out in your nation.

In addition to all of this, having a solid idea of contract law can be really useful to designers. If you own a website it’s quite likely that you have contracts when working with clients, licenses for apps or services, agreements like a “terms of usage” document and policies such as privacy coverage. Arguably, you could use a stock license or consult a lawyer to draft one up, but it’s critical that you don’t just add documents but know what it says, that it’s correct and that it reflects what you offer.

Walking the Minefield

The subject of law is a real minefield that scares most of us into submission. Often as professionals we tend to hope that nothing will affect us but the temptation to leave the issues until they occur can be a dangerous path to take as a professional. While I genuinely hope that no-one reading this article suffers from legal issues as a web designer, it’s important to give the subject the recognition it deserves and hopefully as a result, those who build sites regularly will be informed in such issues.

Perhaps you’ve received or issued a take down notice, maybe a client has refused to pay up, perhaps you’ve asked for permission to use an image or maybe you’ve accepted an agreement to use an app. No matter what, the law has a critical role within the industry and while it’s one of those subjects that while we all like to breeze over to get down to designing and building stuff, we need to at least be aware of the factors involved and how you can reduce the potential for stress inducing disputes.

More Resources

Questions

Have you ever encountered any legal issues relating to your websites? What safeguards do you put in place to resolve disputes? Please let us know your views and ideas in the comments!

Alexander Dawson is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business called HiTechy and writing, he spends time on Twitter, SitePoint’s forums and other places, helping those in need.