“The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced.” ~ Frank Zappa
While it does seem Mr. Zappa was onto something when he said that, the fact is that as business people and citizens we are subject to a host of laws and legal guidelines whether we want to be or not. Selective or random enforcement of laws is also a very real fact we must deal with. However, as anyone knows who’s been stopped for speeding while other cars were passing you by, “but they’re doing it too” is never a good defense.
At the same time, thinking you can individually opt-out of a law as if it’s some new TOS update isn’t going to serve you well either. Knowing the laws that affect you is the first step to making sure you raise the bar, not only for you and your business, but for your competition as well.
These 12 applicable laws for the online pro will certainly help keep you on track in the future:
1. Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives any person the right to access records from a U.S. governmental agency. How much time it will take to get the records you want will vary by agency, and often there is a fee associated with obtaining these records. Keep in mind, too, that not every bit of information is accessible so be aware of the 9 Exemptions and 3 Exclusions that may prevent your access.
You may not think you’ll ever want information from the government, but if you do you know how. Besides, you can use the info to impress people on Twitter. OK, maybe not, but it would sure make for a great infographic!
2. Digital Millennium Copyright Act
What is a very comprehensive law making protection of copyrighted works used on the web, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a federal law that has both civil and criminal components. For most online use, the DMCA provision most people need to be familiar with is that which allows copyright holders greater ability to stop infringement by asking online service providers to block access to allegedly infringing material. In plain English, this means that copyright holders can send an email or fill out a specified form asking the site where the alleged infringement is happening to either take down or block access. Known as a DMCA Takedown Notice, it’s a very powerful part of what is a very complex law.
3. Anti-SLAPP laws
Mention censorship to most anyone with an online presence and you’ll get a very “in your fact” kind of discussion. Censorship and the internet are like oil and water and, for many, the purpose of the internet is to give them a voice on issues that are often unpopular. Sure there are defamation laws, and we need to manage what we say online knowing there are some limitations. However, Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) Laws protect our rights not to be censored, silenced or intimidated when the First Amendment doesn’t apply.
So while we know that the government’s right to make us shut up is limited, it’s these Anti-SLAPP Laws that allow us to stand up to people who are trying to silence us because they don’t like what we’re saying. Of course, if you are defaming someone, that’s not protected. But there are times when what we say online may be detrimental to a person or cause but are not defamatory. These laws are so important that YELP is pushing for a federal Anti-SLAPP law since they vary from state to state.
4. Federal government (non) copyright
Did you know that the U.S. government does not claim a copyright in most of their works? According to U.S. Copyright Law, a work created by an employee of the U.S. government as part of their official duty is not subject to copyright. Now you know why photos of the President sent out by the White House end up all over the place. The U.S. government may obtain copyright rights in other countries, so be aware of that if you’re using works outside the U.S.
There are exceptions to this general rule, though. Works created by government contractors may be subject to copyright as may works created by civilian agencies such as NASA and works created for the U.S. Postal Service. Many of these free government images are a great resource for online professionals. If you want images from the military then check out the Department of Defense. Images of nature can be found at the various national park websites. You don’t have to risk getting caught in a copyright violation using these high quality images that are in the public domain.
5. Basic contract laws
You don’t’ have to go to law school to know that when you promise to do something and you don’t then someone’s going to be mad at you. That’s “Mom Law 101”! However, as a small business you may not have a team of lawyers waiting in the C-Suite to review every word that passes your fingertips but that doesn’t mean you’re any less responsible for the agreement you enter into.
Understanding a few contract law basics may prevent you from being an unhappy businessperson. The #1 tip I give every client is to actually read what you sign and agree to. If you don’t understand what you read either hire a lawyer or have a trusted colleague help you along. You don’t have to know what every “heretofore” and “forthwith” means, but you should know what your obligations are and what the other person’s are too before you agree to doing anything. And while having to put your fancy signature on real paper may make the contract more “real,” a valid and binding contract can be entered into via email or possibly even text messages. Tech meets law!
6. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
Known as COPPA, this is important legislation that any online business should know if their products or services are “directed at children.” The reason no one under 13 can legally obtain a Facebook account is because of COPPA. If your site is directed at children, knowing what your legal obligations are is very important because the consequences of not following these laws are very harsh. The under-13 demographic is very influential and marketing to them can be very lucrative. That being said, if you do target the younger set, know the rules.
7. FTC disclosure guidelines
Online influencers are rewarded with all kinds of freebies. As a business, knowing about the online disclosure requirement could prevent receipt of a nasty-gram from the government. No business ever wants to get a letter from the FTC! Even worse, having your customer or community distrust you can destroy your reputation. Having rules for those you work with and provide free or reduced products or services to will help you stay ahead of the curve.
The FTC, while understaffed, is looking at businesses of all sizes. In addition, by explicitly requiring any disclosure that would be required you are protecting your business reputation. Consumers are becoming more and more savvy and your competitors are just waiting for you to slip up. As an individual, while the FTC may not come after you, your online reputation is at risk. Many worry that they’ll look like a sell-out if they tell people they got a product or service for free or at a discount or that the company they recommend is one they consult for.
The real concern should be that honesty and authenticity are what drives online relationships and leaving others to guess why we might be promoting something erodes the foundation of the relationship. Also, not providing the required disclosure may put other future business relationships at risk. Too many people think they need some type of fancy disclosure when all you really need to do is be upfront with your audience.
8. Income tax laws
As more and more people make money from online ventures, knowing what tax liabilities exist is important. More than just personal income tax issues, if you’ve made the leap to being a business you may have taxes you never knew about. Knowing if you need to pay quarterly taxes, or pay a penalty, is key for small business because those penalties take away from precious operating dollars. In addition, thinking something is a tax write off (going to a conference and thinking all your expenses are a 100% write off) and finding out later it’s not can leave you with a hefty tax bill. Taxes are an almost certainty. And the more money you make the more you likely will owe. However, having the right information or realizing you have no clue and need to talk to a professional can be key to keeping your business going. Remember that tax avoidance is legal, tax evasion is not!
9. Securities law
This may not apply to most people, but if you work for a public company or a company that may go public, what you say in social media could get you and your company in hot water. As the owner of a company that may be seeking investors, disclosure of certain types of confidential information could violate SEC regulations. In addition, if you know that your company is courting a new spokesperson and that may impact your stock price or the value of your company, random posts on social media may not be the “hat tip” you’re looking for.
10. Social media privacy laws
Whether you’re an employer or an employee, privacy rights are very important in the workplace. A lot has been discussed about employers asking employees to turn over their login information for social media sites. As of this month, 5 states ban employers from demanding social media login information. As an employer, this is important information even if you’re not in these 5 states. As an employee, knowing your rights when it comes to social media privacy is an added layer of protection. While these are workplace privacy laws, remember that there are many other laws that govern personal privacy when it comes to social media. While it is easy to share, sometimes sharing isn’t what’s best.
11. Sweepstakes laws
Social media promotions are a huge draw and can bring traffic and potential revenue. However, many people don’t realize that all promotions are governed by state and federal laws. Many social media promotions are violating the basic rules of sweepstakes and contests, putting their company at great risk not only from the government but also from contestants or potential contestants who may sue for violations. No matter how large or small your organization, running a social media promotion and not knowing the law can bring you the wrong type of publicity. In addition, the liability exposure can cripple a small company. In addition, while not laws, know the promotion guidelines for the social media platform you’re using. While they may not sue you, taking down your profile may actually hurt more.
12. Rights of publicity laws
Everyone on the internet is famous, right? Recent proposed changes to Instagram’s Terms of Service caused such a backlash for the platform that they had to retract the proposed changes and issue a number of statements about what can be done with the images that people upload to the platform.
Additionally, it’s so easy to photograph people, whether they know it or not, it may seem simple to just use their image. We’ve all read the tabloids where celebrities sue over use of their image. Now though, through social media, the everyday person is gaining value and brands and companies are wanting to capitalize on those seemingly genuine endorsements. No matter the size of your company, using the photo of anyone — even if they send it directly to you through social media –— should be off limits unless you have permission or know, with absolute certainly, you have the right to use their likeness.
Being online opens many doors, whether it’s new job possibilities or opportunities that come along because you’re part of a community. But whether you’re acting on behalf of a business or doing your own thing, a few legal smarts can go a long way.
Featured image courtesy of no3rdw licensed via Creative Commons.