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Website Legal Requirements

If you're doing business today, it's virtually a requirement that you have a website. Not every small business needs a fancy website. Many businesses get by with a standard site listing their location, products, and services.

As the internet expands, new rules are created that affect even simple billboard websites. Users have more legal protection. Federal and state laws define some terms and conditions all websites must contain. If a business sells merchandise online, there are other laws you must follow, depending on the nature of your business. Some businesses also need terms and conditions on their website.

This article reviews legal requirements for business websites, including terms and conditions, privacy laws, and social media concerns. For additional helpful articles, check out FindLaw's Internet and E-Commerce section.

What Are Terms and Conditions?

Any purchase agreement contains terms and conditions. An agreement to buy something is a contract, whether made in person with a piece of paper or made online with a checkbox. All contracts contain terms. They include payment terms, warranties of fitness, terms of delivery, and cancellation policies.

Websites must include other terms and conditions by law. You may have recently noticed popups advising you of your right to opt out of having your data collected or cookies attached to your browser. Some states require these legal website terms for any website that attaches cookies or website trackers to monitor browser activity.

Most small business owners don't have a heavy interest in passive data collection. You won't need the same terms and conditions as bigger companies that routinely track all visitors to their sites.

Privacy Rules and Conditions

The greatest number of new laws affecting the internet have been in the area of personal privacy. If your business collects any kind of personal data, you must explain why you are gathering this information and its purpose.

Data privacy laws affect almost all businesses on the internet. Some rules all businesses must follow include:

  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) controls data storage and transmission. The ECPA determines the release of data to law enforcement and private parties.
  • The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulates internet privacy in the European Union. All companies doing business in Europe must follow the GDPR. This includes companies whose sites are accessible in Europe but are not primarily targeted at European customers.
  • The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) restricts data collection from minors. It also requires parental consent if the operator reasonably knows the user is under 13 years of age.
  • If you conduct any marketing via email, you must follow the CAN-SPAM Act. This rule protects consumers from unwanted spam in email. It requires clear opt-out mechanisms and a physical address for businesses that send bulk emails.

These are general terms and conditions for most business websites. You will need additional terms to protect your business operations if you are engaged in sales or subscriptions on your website.

Customer Protection

If your website uses customer information, you are responsible for protecting it. Customer data is like any other valuable commodity. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the governing law of advertising and marketing and whatever state laws apply.

Credit Card and Data Protection

Most companies accepting credit or debit cards use payment card industry data security standards (PCI DSS). PCI DSS is not legally required, but all major credit card companies use this standard. PCI compliance depends on a company's size and data management procedures. You should consult an IT professional and intellectual property attorney when developing this portion of your website.

Sales, Returns, and Refunds

Whatever payment method you choose, your site must have a return and refund policy visible on the payment page. The FTC requires all terms and conditions for refunds, returns, and exchanges to be easily accessible from the order page. You can't make customers click through multiple pages to learn how to get their money back.

If your sales or return policy requires the customer to pay shipping, your advertising must state this clearly on the page. The FTC guidance on disclosures and disclaimers requires all such information to be clear and conspicuous. A link to a disclaimer must contain enough information that the client understands the terms even without clicking. For instance, "Disclaimer" is not enough, but a live link saying "Restocking fee applies" with more information at the link would suffice.

Legal Jargon

Terms and conditions are there for your protection. A sales page is a type of legal contract. It needs the same clauses as any other legal document. Your website must include:

  • A dispute resolution clause explaining how customers can challenge a defective product. If your state requires arbitration, this must explain how customers can begin the process.
  • A privacy statement with a link to a complete privacy policy based on your state laws.

Small business terms and conditions agreement templates are available online.

Endorsements and Social Media

If websites are the billboards of today's small businesses, social media is the radio advertising. Blogs, podcasts, and influencers are everywhere, and they are essential for small businesses that need local exposure. As with other forms of advertising and marketing, the FTC has developed rules for marketing the sale of products via social media. These rules mirror existing marketing and advertising laws.

Limiting liability in social media involves the same applicable laws as limiting liability in any other media. You must disclose all business relationships with influencers or podcasters promoting your product or services. Influencers must have used the product they are promoting. End-users must know the product does what the promoter claims it does.

Intellectual Property and Trademarks

Intellectual property rights are a major concern for businesses with an online presence. If your webpage offers any downloadable material, such as a mobile app or legal document, you should include a trademark on the page.

Copyrights exist on documents from the moment of creation. Copyright laws on the internet are more complex. For instance, live performances are not copyrightable. Recordings can be, but the copyright is the property of the creator and not the actor. Copyrights for podcasts and webinars may need special legal agreements beyond website terms and conditions.

Owners register trademarks through the US Patent Office. Registering a trademark gives the owner sole discretion over who may use the mark and when they can use it. Some designers recommend trademarking your domain name if it is part of your company brand.

Legal Advice for Website Terms and Responsibilities

Website terms and conditions require legal language by federal and state law. How they're written is crucial. For help drafting your website terms and conditions, consider contacting a business and commercial law attorney in your area.

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