When Developing and Maintaining a Website Don’t Forget The Legal Stuff

Websites play such an integral role for organizations now; even more so than just a year or two ago. An increasingly creative and innovative way for organization’s to convey their mission; what nonprofits can do with a basic website these days is incredible. Unfortunately, the razzle dazzle of flash animation, the cutest duck theme or the perfect comic sans font can become so intoxicating that the less “sexy” operational and legal aspects of a website can be forgotten.

But organizations must remember that with its many benefits the web also comes with many obligations. The more accessible public use is, and the more interactive a website becomes with its users, the greater the regulatory oversight will increase and the greater the exposure there is for a website owner.  As this happens, it will become imperative that organizations stop seeing websites as a static afterthought, begin to see them as the potential exposures they are and allocate more resources to ensuring that websites are used offensively and stay compliant.

To get started, a few things organizations will want to think about when developing or using a website, if it hasn’t already, are:

Privacy Policies: Where an organization collects information from website visitors (whether that information is collected from the computer itself (like an internet IP address or cookies) or the actual user (such as an email address or phone number)) best practice dictates that a policy be posted telling  visitors how that information is collected, used and disposed of. There are also consumer protection statutes that seek to protect the  personal information of individuals that makes these type of policies essential. Though there are hundreds of sites that provide template language, there is definitely an art to drafting terms that are tailored enough to provide adequate protection. Luckily, I’ve written about this before and have even provided some samples and resources.

Terms of Use: Terms of use are one of the best lines of defense organizations have to protect themselves from claims and litigation. They set the tone for how a website is to be used,  how products and services sold through the website should be used and, overall, provide an opportunity for the relationship between an organization and its visitors, clients, donors and grant-makers to be established from the outset. Terms also provide an opportunity for organizations to put forth a professional face by anticipating details website users may need, or questions users may have, and addressing them all in one place.

FTC Disclaimers: When a website posts endorsements, or testimonials, about a product or service and there is a material connection between the provider of the product and service and the writer (such as  free product or payment for the endorsement)  the reader must be informed about the relationship. More information on endorsement disclaimers can be found on the FTC’s website here.

Blogging: Where an organization  hosts a blog, blog writer’s will want to read up on some of the rules and regulations that surround blog writing to ensure that posts stay on the up and up.

ADA Compliance: There are some exempt organizations that fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is a federal law requiring that public provisions (things like websites)  be set up a certain way with certain functionalities that allow those with disabilities to use them. Sometimes this requires special software. Organizations will want to familiarize themselves with the law while building websites in order to avoid investing alot of money into a site that must ultimately be taken down and re-done.

Contact information: Where vistors have questions or need more information it’s best to have good contact information up where someone affiliated with the website can be easily reached. In other words,  don’t use the email address you check twice every six months and use to collect those nagging e-coupons. After all, better to be contacted directly than have an authority reach out, or worse the dreaded negative “tweet”, because a frustrated visitor couldn’t get a hold of you. Additionally, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) requires that contact information on websites remain up-to-date as well.

Of course, this list is far from exhaustive but will definitely get organizations on the right track to covering the more “mundane”, but nevertheless important, aspects of a website.  And in addition to fulfilling its legal obligations, taking these seriously and addressing them on the front-end helps a website look more legitimate as well as send a message to potential donors and grant-makers that the organization  takes all aspects of its operations seriously.