If you’ve got the right skills, it’s relatively easy to create a website. But if you think that setting up your online business is just a matter of slapping up a few web pages and taking credit card details then you’re way off beam. The legal consequences of owning and running a website can be far more complex. There are many UK and EU laws that intrude on every aspect of creating and maintaining websites from protecting your users’ personal data, to registering your domain name.

Websites can create both civil and criminal liability.

It’s difficult to know where to begin when tackling a subject this large. It should be said at the outset that law in general is a very complex subject requiring years of experience - hence why having a solicitor write you a two sentence letter might set you back two hundred quid (think of the value you’re getting from this blog post!)

This article is only an overview of some of the key points of law that need to be taken into account during the design, development, and maintenance of your website. A lot of this information may be taken care of by your web development company, but it is wise to make sure that YOU are covered, as it is YOU that will be liable.

As mentioned, there are many areas that may cause concern depending on the specific nature of your website and what it does. However many websites will have similar issues. For example, your domain name choice and branding itself. Does it infringe any other business trade mark rights or intellectual property? It might seem like a great idea to use a competitor’s business or product name to shortcut your way to getting some of their business. Alas for such sneaky thoughts, the other company has every right to stop you doing so (Trade Marks Act 1994) As far as protecting your own Trade Marks goes, use trade mark symbols where authorised and appropriate.

Trade Mark infringments can go hand in hand with your branding, and may lean into other areas of law, such as copyright infringement. Many people don’t realise that you don’t need a copyright message anywhere on your site. Information that is on your website is automatically covered by UK copyright law. This means that you cannot copy sections of text, images or movies from other sites into your own without the express consent (usually best in writing) from the author. You can of course include a message on your site that shows that you are willing to assert your rights over your copyright, which will serve as a deterrent.

Do you collect any personal data on your site? Typically, this will be through registration processes or contact forms. You should make sure that you comply with the Data Protection Act 1998. This tells you the do’s and don’ts regarding the capture of personal information and more importantly what you can do with the information in terms of marketing and scope in which it can be used.

Marketing should be a large part of your website strategy, and will probably also be a large part of your budget. This means that you should be aware of the potential pitfalls (legally) of marketing your business and using the data you have collected. As well as Data Protection Act 1998, you should also look at Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 which governs unsolicited electronic communications between you and your (potential) customers. Reading around the subject also gives insight into whether you should offer opt-ins, or opt-outs for collecting the information in the first place – which could be an entire blog article in itself.

There are several rules that pertain to email marketing and also your website. All electronic communication between your company and the third party (your customers) must include your company registration number, place of registeration, and your registered office. In addition to Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003, Companies Act 2006 also covers this aspect.

As well as safe guarding the information that users supply to you, you also need to ensure that your website is accessible to its users. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 makes it illegal for companies to discriminate against disabled people. Companies must make “reasonable adjustment” to the way in which services are offered to ensure that disabled individuals are still able to access them. If you operate a website that is not accessible to the disabled, you can be sued.

Today’s Moral

Like any business, online operations are governed or affected by a whole raft of legislation. Making sure that you are complying with this legislation is the only sensible way to run an online operation as the potential cost could be massive. Whenever you’re buying services from a digital agency, ask a few questions and make sure they’re on the ball. Whilst it may be your responsibility to ensure compliance, they should be taking care of a lot of it on your behalf.