Running a website can entail significant legal responsibility. Whether it’s a personal blog, a fan site, a small business shopping portal or something else, it’s important to know which issues to be alert to, how to manage them, and when to seek extra help. Although there’s no foolproof way to guarantee never being sued, understanding these issues and taking due care with what goes on the site will make it much easier to settle disputes and avoid incurring any major penalties.
With so much content available on the web, some website designers naively assume that it’s free or that its creators don’t care what happens to it. As a rule of thumb, if a piece of content is good quality, then effort has been put into producing it, and people who make an effort with their work generally do care about it. Nobody should use content without checking the applicable licences (usually referenced at the bottom of the page or in a site-wide notice). Sometimes, permission for reuse is granted on a non-profit basis, which means that it’s only okay to use it if no money is being made as a result. If permission isn’t given at all, reusing the material could result in a take-down notice and, if that’s ignored, in a lawsuit.
The existence of simple packages for setting up an online store can encourage people to rush into it without thinking through the implications. When every payment made results in a new contract being formed, this places significant legal obligations on the site owner to deliver. Before setting up a site like this, it’s important to have the mechanics of delivery worked out and to consult a legal expert with the right specialty to help. Good lawyers, such as Henner Diekmann, address the issues that businesses face when running a website that manages financial transactions.
The third common legal risk that website owners face is an accusation of libel. National laws on this vary but, essentially, it deals with the publication of material about somebody that is alleged to be untrue. This is a particularly significant concern for sites that publish news and gossip, however casually. It means that it’s important to take stories only from trusted sources and to cross-check them before posting. Again, the usual progress of a libel complaint begins with a take-down notice, so there is usually a chance to get out of trouble, but repeated infractions can make this more difficult.
One of the things that complicates the legalities associated with website ownership is that the internet spans multiple jurisdictions, placing the owner in the position of somebody publishing in each one of them. Although legal practice is developing to take account of this, it means that severe laws in one country can potentially impact a website owner resident in a country with much more relaxed laws, catching them by surprise. Although most owners will have a trouble-free experience most of the time, for those who want to minimise legal risk, nothing beats talking to an expert.