“The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced.” — Frank Zappa
While it does seem Zappa was onto something when he said this, the fact is, as businesspeople and citizens, we are subject to a host of laws and legal guidelines whether or not we want to be. Selective or random law enforcement is also a reality we must deal with.
And as anyone who’s been stopped for speeding while other cars speed by knows, “They’re doing it, too!” is never a good defense. Thinking you can individually opt-out of a law 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 laws applicable to online pros will help keep you on track:
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 long it will take to get the records will vary by agency, and there is often a fee associated with obtaining these records. Also keep in mind that not every bit of information is accessible. Be aware of the nine exemptions and three exclusions that may prevent your access.
You may not think you’ll ever want information from the government, but if you do, now you know a little about it. Besides, you can use the information to impress people on Twitter. (OK, maybe not, but it would sure make for a great infographic.)
2. Digital Millennium Copyright Act
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a comprehensive law that protects copyrighted works used on the Web. It 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 the one that gives copyright holders greater ability to stop infringement by asking online service providers to block access to allegedly infringing material. In plain English, this means 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 the material or block access to it. Known as a DMCA Takedown Notice, it’s a powerful part of a very complex law.
3. Anti-SLAPP laws
Censorship and the Internet are like oil and water. To many people, the purpose of the Internet is to give people a voice on unpopular issues. 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 right not to be censored, silenced or intimidated when the First Amendment doesn’t apply.
While we know 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 try to silence us because they don’t like what we’re saying.
Of course, you aren’t protected if you defame someone. But there are times when what we say online may be detrimental to a person or cause, but not defamatory. These laws are so important that YELP is pushing for a federal Anti-SLAPP law since the laws vary from state to state.
4. Federal government copyright
Did you know the U.S. government does not claim a copyright on most of its works? According to U.S. Copyright Law, a work created by an employee of the U.S. government as part of his or her 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 use works outside the United States.
There are exceptions to this general rule. Works created by government contractors may be subject to copyright, as are works created by civilian agencies such as NASA and the U.S. Postal Service.
Many of these free government images are great for professionals. If you want images from the military, check out the Department of Defense. You can also find images of nature at the various national park websites. You don’t have to risk getting caught in a copyright violation when you use 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, someone will be mad at you. However, as a small business you may not have a team of lawyers waiting to review every word that passes through your fingertips. But that doesn’t mean you’re any less responsible for agreements you enter into.
Understanding a few contract law basics may prevent you from being an unhappy businessperson. The No. 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. You don’t have to know what every “heretofore” and “forthwith” means, but you should know what your obligations and those of the other person are before you agree to do anything.
While putting your fancy signature on real paper may make the contract more “real,” you can enter into a valid and binding contract via email or possibly even text message.
6. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
Known as COPPA, this is important legislation that any online business should know if its 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, it’s important to know what your legal obligations are; the consequences of not following these laws are very harsh.
The under-13 demographic is very influential, and marketing to them can be lucrative. That said, if you target children, know the rules.
7. FTC disclosure guidelines
Online influencers receive all kinds of freebies. As a business, know about online disclosure requirements. It could prevent your receipt of a nasty-gram from the government. No business ever wants to get a letter from the FTC! Even worse, losing the trust of your customers or community can destroy your reputation.
Have rules for those you work with or give free or reduced products or services to. It will help you stay ahead of the curve.
The FTC, while understaffed, looks at businesses of all sizes. In addition, you protect your business’s reputation when you explicitly require any disclosure the FTC demands. Consumers are becoming more savvy, and your competitors are just waiting for you to slip up.
As an individual, the FTC may not come after you, but your online reputation will be at risk. Many people worry they will look like sell-outs 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 drive online relationships. Leaving others to guess why we promote something erodes the foundation of those relationships. Also, not providing the required disclosure may put future business relationships at risk. Too many people think they need some type of fancy disclosure when all they need is to be upfront with the audience.
8. Income tax laws
As more and more people make money from online ventures, it’s important to know what tax liabilities exist. If you’ve made the leap to being a business, you may have to pay taxes you never knew about. Knowing if you need to pay quarterly taxes or a penalty is key for small businesses; 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 percent write off) and finding out later that it’s not can leave you with a hefty tax bill.
Taxes are a certainty, and the more money you make, the more you will likely 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, tax avoidance is legal, but tax evasion is not!
9. Securities law
This may not apply to most people, but if you work for a public company or 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.
If you know your company is courting a new spokesperson 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 employee, privacy rights are important in the workplace. Many have discussed employers asking employees to turn over their social media login information.
As of this month, five states ban employers from demanding social media login information. As an employer, this is important information even if you’re not in these five 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 there are many other laws that govern personal privacy when it comes to social media. It is easy to share, but 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 state and federal laws govern all promotions. Many social media promotions violate the basic rules of sweepstakes and contests, putting companies 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.
The liability exposure can cripple a small company. While they aren’t laws, know the promotion guidelines for the social media platform you’re using. No one may sue you, but 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 that the company had to retract the proposed changes and issue a number of statements about what could happen to the images people upload to the platform.
Additionally, it’s so easy to photograph people—whether they know it or not—that 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 want to capitalize on those seemingly genuine endorsements.
No matter the size of your company, using a photo of anyone—even if he or she sends 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 that person’s 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 act on behalf of a business or do your own thing, a few legal smarts can go a long way.
Sara Hawkins is the creator of a Blog Law series to help other bloggers, entrepreneurs and online professionals gain legal confidence. Republished with permission, courtesy of 12 Most.