Terms and Conditions – How to Protect Your Website from Liability

legal_formsThe Internet is still somewhat of a “Wild West frontier” when it comes to the law. In other words, there aren’t that many rules and regulations, but you still have to follow them if you don’t want to get “lynched.” The best way to make sure your website is not violating the law is to have an up to date set of terms and conditions.

Terms and conditions are an essential part of any website, and if they are well drafted, they can protect you from a lot of potential liability.  There’s just one problem: the Internet travels at lightning speed, while the legal system travels at a snail’s pace.  How do you make sure your website terms and conditions are on point and up to date?

The following information will give your company some good basic guidelines about terms and conditions and how to protect your website from liability.

Why You Need Terms and Conditions for a Website

Let’s start with the basics on why you need website terms and conditions in the first place.

Terms and conditions act as a contract between you, the website owner, and your users. This contract explains the basic rules of how the website can and can’t be used. Anytime someone goes to your website, they are impliedly (or sometimes explicitly) agreeing to be bound by the contract.

To limit your liability, it’s important to have some level of control over how your website is used. You can’t just let users to have free reign over their activities. If YouTube had no terms and conditions, I’m sure you can imagine the types of explicit and graphic videos that people might upload. It could get ugly, fast, and YouTube as we know it would probably no longer exist.

But even if your website doesn’t involve user generated content like YouTube, its still very important that there is a contract in place setting forth all the rules, or the “terms and conditions,” of using the site because it will inform your users of what the site is and exactly what it is to be used for.

Essential Terms and Conditions Every Website Needs

In general, the website terms and conditions should always include basic information on how the website works, how it should be properly used, and what activities are considered violations. There should also be a section known as the privacy policy that explains what information the website collects about its users and how that information is used.

A well-drafted terms and conditions should identify all the important legal concepts involved with use of the site, and clearly explain how the website complies with the law, as well as what the consequences will be for users that fail to comply with the law. For example, copyright laws such as the DMCA often come into play. In order to make sure your website does not violate federal law, you need to have terms and conditions to set forth exactly how and why the site is in compliance with the DMCA.

Depending on the type of website it is, there are also many more specific considerations that should be taken.

For example, if your website is focused largely on user generated content like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook, it is essential that the terms and conditions clearly explain what content users are allowed to post and what they’re not allowed to post. You should also be clear about what happens to users that violate the rules. You can check out Facebook’s terms and conditions for a good example of this.

If your website is an e-commerce business, there are many rules and regulations about pricing, fees, delivery, refunds, cancellations, and more. It is essential that any e-commerce website complies with these laws, and clearly explains its policies on these laws in the terms and conditions, in order to remain operational. For instance, see Amazon’s terms and conditions.

How to Make Sure You’re Protected

Given all of the rapidly changing technology out there today, not having website terms and conditions is sure to cause a disastrous outcome for your company. If you don’t regulate the use of your website, your users are free to use it how they please, including in ways that violate the law. Oh, and guess what…you’re the one that’s going to be held liable. Follow these basic steps to make sure your website is protected.

1. Have terms and conditions in place

This one is obvious. The best thing you can do to protect your website from liability is to have thorough, well-drafted terms and conditions in place. They should be easy to understand, and govern every aspect of users’ interactions with your website.

2. Make them easily visible

It’s also important to make sure that the terms and conditions are clearly visible and accessible to users from anywhere on the site. Putting a link in the footer is a pretty common and acceptable practice.

3. Get help from a lawyer

When it comes to terms and conditions, standard templates that you can find online just don’t cut it most of the time. There are too many laws and too many details involved along the way. You need to take them all into account in order to limit your potential liability. The best way to make sure your website terms and conditions are up to date and compliant with all relevant laws is to hire a lawyer that is familiar with digital media and Internet law. A lawyer can advise you on all the laws that are relevant to the use of your website, and help you draft terms and conditions that reflect it.

Conclusion

Because the Internet has quickly given rise to a wide range of new businesses and business models, as well as methods of communicating and sharing information, the legal industry has had a tough time keeping up. However, that does not mean you can ignore the law altogether, and failure to comply with laws that affect the use of websites can lead to unnecessary liability and the outright failure of your company.

One of the simplest, yet most important steps to take to protect your website is to have in place terms and conditions explaining how the site functions and how it is expected to be used. Even though the Internet may look like an open frontier with respect to the laws, if you fail to abide by them, you’ll be “wanted dead or alive” in no time.

Aaron is the co-founder of LawKick.com – an online marketplace for legal services. LawKick is creating a platform where consumers can get bids from local lawyers on a wide variety of legal services (including website terms and conditions) for free.

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