Australia: Five tips to help your business avoid breaking the law online

In brief - Marketing your business online brings both opportunities and risks

If you are looking to tap into the benefits of having an online presence for your business or you just want to reach new customers via social media, then you're just a click away... but so are the legal hazards.

Staying within the law and avoiding disputes over online content

Regardless of the size of your business, a social media presence could determine your business success. You probably bought the domain name for your business before you registered it. Chances are that you're now thinking of establishing a profile for your business on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat and perhaps other social media channels.

For small businesses an online presence can be low-cost, but this doesn't mean it is low-risk. If you're online you still have to abide by the law. Here are five tips that will help you avoid legal disputes over your online content.

  1. Establish a contract with web developers or consultants

If you hire developers or consultants to build your online presence, make sure you enter into a written agreement. The contract should outline their responsibilities and include a precise description of the work you have asked them to do, expected completion date, who owns the software and content; and who is responsible for licensing.

  1. Display the terms and policies of your business clearly

Put in place policies that clearly establish your terms for doing business and make sure they are easy to access online. The policies you should display will depend on what your business is.

Standard policies that address your product, online content, liability, privacy, purchase terms, process for sales and returns and avenues for customer feedback or complaints are an absolute must. Setting this up straight away will save you from answering a lot of questions later.

  1. Read third-party rules

If you're using a third-party platform like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, be aware of your rights and responsibilities. Before clicking yourself into trouble, read any terms and conditions and privacy policies. Often you will own what you post, but the provider of the platform is likely to have a very broad licence to use anything you post for their own purposes. Check important user information which is often available via links at the bottom of the page.

Bear in mind also that the rules for using these platforms can change at any time. The difference between posting content on a third party platform and posting it on your own website is the difference between building assets on rented land and building assets on land you own.

  1. Be honest in the claims you make online about your business

In Australia social media is governed by consumer protection laws, which prohibit the making of misleading or deceptive claims about products or services. Minimise your risk by not making statements online that you wouldn't in traditional forms of advertising.

Also remember that you can be held responsible for posts or comments made by your users or followers. Always have in place a clear moderation policy and remove any posts that may be false, misleading or deceptive as soon as you become aware of them. Social media doesn't sleep, so don't forget to check content posted outside of standard business hours.

  1. Share or watermark your images

When posting or sharing content, always stop and ask yourself "where has this come from?" The general rule is, if you made it, you can use it. Common practice is to watermark your images so you can protect your own intellectual property rights. But if you do find the image somewhere else - including Google Image - then it probably belongs to someone else.

Intellectual property law requires that to use someone else's content, you need to get permission from the owner. Sharing or linking content that acknowledges the original source is generally legal, as long as you don't try to pass it off as your own.

Always consider how you can minimise risk with your web-based content. It is not worth taking risks which could result in litigation, the cost of which can far outweigh the need to post 140 characters or less.

Get inspired by companies that have great digital strategies

It can be daunting if you aren't familiar with social media or establishing professional online profiles, so it is worth learning more. Get inspired and look to the big guys to see how it is done and what they are doing to keep their audience excited. Here are some game players who are getting it right:

  • Red Bull and GoPro share jaw-dropping photos and footage that are set to inspire their followers.
  • Audiences love content that teaches them something new. TEDtalks have responded to people's thirst for learning online by sharing informative talks from big names or on big topics.
  • Humour is always a winner. After undergoing a revamp, Old Spice ads went viral, attracting a younger crowd with humour.
Leanne Walker Martin Deutsch
Information and communications technology
Colin Biggers & Paisley

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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