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How Are Your Internet Ethics?

-- 2011-04-29 1:00 am --

If you're doing business on the Internet, you have a whole new world of ethics to deal with. That means legal issues, copyright concerns, pricing guidelines, and linking to questionable sites. There aren't any clearcut "rules" for dealing with many of these issues, but there are plenty of pitfalls, especially when you start dealing with social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

One big no-no is violating copyright laws. Just because something is on the Internet doesn't mean you have permission to use it on your website. Let's say you're selling something, and the manufacturer of the product has some great information and photos on their website you'd like to have on your site.

Are you allowed to copy it? Most probably the manufacturer will be happy for you to use it, but you can't make that assumption. Legally and ethically, you need the manufacturer's permission, so ask first.

Or perhaps someone has interviewed you and written about your business in an on-line or print publication. If it's a favorable article or a really great photo, you might want to reprint it on your website.

Stop! In most cases, either the author or the publication holds the copyright, and violating that copyright can lead to really big fines. Get permission, in writing, before you copy anything to your website, even something that someone has written about you.

If you write about a product or service on your website, be sure you can back up what you say. Consumer protection laws are clear: although you can put a marketing spin on what you write, whatever you say must be the truth.

Let's say you're promoting a new cleaning product. You can say something like, "We have the best product for getting your carpet clean." But you can't make a claim such as, "Guaranteed to remove 100% of harmful bacteria," unless, of course, you have scientific evidence to back that up.

That's a bit of an extreme example, but you get the idea: some "puffery" is acceptable and even expected, but don't make a measurable claim unless you can prove it.

What about criticizing a competitor or competing product? The situation here is pretty much the same as with making a claim about a product. You can't write anything that's disparaging or dishonest about your competition. However, you can compare and contrast products, websites, or businesses, as long as you're fair about it. Here again, don't say anything that's unfounded or that you can't prove, because that can get you into trouble.

The important legal and ethical concept here centers on the word "deception." Both legally and ethically, deception is when you purposefully misrepresent something in order to cause damage to someone else. Get permission before you use anything someone else has written, and be honest about what you write, and you'll stay out of any ethical or legal trouble. It's all about doing and saying the right thing.