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The dangers of your online presence

The Dangers of Your On-line Presence

Companies great and small have spent significant time, materials and resources on e-commerce, seeking a piece of the new economy. In the rush to be in position, many of these companies have not considered the ramifications of their on-line presence. Jurisdiction, privacy, and free speech are three major issues which companies need to consider in evaluating the legal ramifications of their presence on the Internet.

Jurisdiction refers to the concept that certain governments and their courts have legal control over persons and businesses which reside in, and business transactions which take place within, their borders. Traditionally, geography controlled jurisdiction, but because of the Internet, time and geographical boundaries have been eliminated, resulting in confusion over jurisdiction. The business you transact on the Internet may subject you to the jurisdiction of courts in far off places to which you have never been.

The issue of jurisdiction is not just limited to international disputes. A California company may decide to file suit in its home state, with the California courts approving of such action. Certainly, you, as the defendant Maryland company, do not want the time or expense of litigating a California law suit, but would rather have the case brought in Maryland.

How does jurisdiction become an issue? Once a web site’s content is posted, it is available for access by persons virtually anywhere in the world, including people in countries with different beliefs, value systems and, most importantly, laws, than our own. This occasionally becomes a problem where the content or goods and services provided do not meet the approval of another government. Usually the subject of such conflicting standards is within the issues of privacy or free speech. We, as Americans, are accustomed to our First Amendment rights, but we must remember that this does not apply equally in other countries around the world. A problem that publishers have faced for some time is free speech and its varying application around the world. Each time your company’s web site is downloaded, you may be "publishing". Therefore, if you have a web site, you should educate your company on the same legal issues faced by publishers.

If your company retains data on its customers, or your client’s customers, the manner in which it acquires, stores, and transfers the data, is a privacy issue as it relates to individuals. The United States has taken a relative self-regulation approach to data privacy, as compared to developments in other areas of the world, for example the European Union countries. If you transact with individual consumers in the European Union, you are subject to restrictive privacy regulations on personal data in place today. Not all of your focus should remain overseas, though. Your company should also be aware that there are developing data privacy regulations within the United States as well.

A British court found the content from an American web site to be pornographic and in violation of British law. A New York state court found that an Antigua based gambling site was in violation of a New York law prohibiting gambling. How do you protect yourself from such litigation in far away lands? The best protection is by carefully screening your content, on-line business practices, target market/audience, and drafting appropriate terms of use or disclaimers for your web site. There is no guarantee that even the most well drafted terms of use will completely insulate your company. Responsible risk-management, though, can reduce your legal exposure.

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