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Time to get serious about e-biz, warns lawyer

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British businesses must stop viewing the Internet like a game of cowboys and Indians. This was the message from today's "Protecting Reward Against Risk" forum, organised by mi2g Software. Speaking to journalists at the event held at Lloyds of London, Catrin Turner, a partner with e-commerce lawyers Henry Hepworth, said: "The Internet is not the Wild West." Turner warned that non-legalled Web sites were a lawyer's dream, but could be very expensive for the company concerned. "Get legal issues dealt with while the Web site is being designed," she said. Turner's advice to companies was as follows.

  • Implement "Best Practice" wherever possible. Internet law is due for some big changes in the near future, with directives on e-commerce and electronic signatures expected by the start of next year. Companies therefore need to act in advance, and use best practice i.e. go beyond what is legally needed on their Web sites. Turner said judges were "bending and twisting the current laws for e-commerce", and any legal wrangles would be looked on more kindly if site owners appeared to be taking extra legal precautions.
  • Safeguard your brand. Turfing out cyber-squatters is becoming easier, but it can be expensive and time consuming, so register all possible URLs at the very beginning. "You need a monopoly on the brand, not just a .com," said Turner. Get the .org, .net, .co.uk, or even the less widely used addresses such as .fr. And guard against "leaving a brand open to be piggy-backed by other traders".
  • State time of acceptance for e-commerce. Companies must state clearly in their Ts&Cs at what point a contract is accepted. Is it when the offer is acknowledged, or when an email is sent out to clarify the sale? Customers need to be made to read and click an "I understand" button on the Ts & Cs before they go through with the sale.
  • Jurisdiction and governing law. A consumer can choose to have a complaint dealt with in their own country, regardless of where the Web site they bought from is based. It is different with business-to-business - a Web site owner can stipulate in advance that they want issues and complaints dealt with in their own country. They should do this for their own protection.
  • Say where the products or services are or are not offered. If companies prefer not to trade in a certain country, they should state this on the Web site.
  • Be aware of the Data Protection Act when using people's personal information. Put in an opt in, rather than opt out, button for users to choose if they want their details passed on to a third party this will be seen as using best practice if there are any legal issues. ®

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