For any company that puts IP security first, dealing with the risk exposures of online business can be daunting. In his guest blog, IP consultant Jeremy Phillips outlines some rules of the road for maintaining ‘netiquette’
Remember when you were learning to drive? The easy bit was holding the steering wheel, pressing the accelerator and keeping your eyes on the road. Somewhere in the background was a huge body of rules, regulations, practices and pitfalls. Get just one wrong and you fail your test. But once you’ve passed your test, life gets easier.
Like the instruction manual that comes with that expensive piece of electronic gadgetry that you put to one side as soon as you can, the Highway Code and a host of traffic regulations just merge into a few simple principles like ‘be careful’, ‘beware of flashing lights in your rear mirror’, and ‘when in doubt, don’t – if the police are watching!’
Which laws apply?
Life online is much the same. Whether you’re running an internet business, you’re just a customer in search of a good deal or your activities online are purely social, you will have read or been told about a lot of legal rules. You will also have discovered that much of life online is governed by behavioural norms that have sprung up in a very short time, but still have the force of ‘netiquette’. Terms like phish, spam, cybersquatter, scam, link, domain and junk become second nature, and the myriad actions you perform online daily are based on a set of expectations that you will have learned quite recently.
Though the internet seamlessly connects people around the world at the click of a link, there is no single ‘law of the internet’ that says what is allowed and what is not. Most countries don’t have a specific internet law at all; they just apply ordinary laws as closely as possible to what people do while they’re online. The sale of non-existent timeshares in sunny Spain, fake handbags, foods that are past their sell-by dates and misleading pensions and insurance policies is governed by law, but it can be a nightmare trying to work out which one. If a seller based in Russia is offering Korean-made handsets through his website hosted in Turkmenistan to an English customer whose internet service supplier is French, where is the contract made and which law (or laws) apply?
Like the Highway Code, the laws relating to the internet are too many to keep in mind and, like the instruction manual for an electronic gadget, those laws exist in many languages and are generally unintelligible to the user in most if not all of them. What’s more, money paid to internet fraudsters is generally impossible to get back, like water disappearing down the sink.
Cultivating positive habits
It’s at this point that the internet user’s driving experience in assimilating a mass of legal and technical data into a few simple principles comes in handy. ‘Be careful’ is obviously relevant, even if you’re not quite sure what you’re being careful about. ‘Beware of flashing lights in your rear mirror’ becomes ‘beware of flashy websites and pop-ups with too-good-to-be-true offers’, and ‘when in doubt, don’t – if the police are watching’ can be usefully shortened to ‘when in doubt, don’t – full stop.’ Developing a sixth sense for online dangers is often a good way to compensate for deficiencies in the other five senses.
Caution is a purely negative virtue; but good positive habits can be cultivated. Searching for your own name and your own business name is the swiftest way to discover with whom you’re sharing your name. You may find nothing to worry about – but you may also discover that the contents of your own website have been copied or ‘scraped’ on to someone else’s website in such a way that visitors to the other site might not even know of your existence. You may not be able to stop this happening, but at least you know a problem exists.
Another good habit is checking out businesses you might want to buy things from or deal with: just key in their names, followed by ‘scam’ or ‘fraud’ and you may save yourself from a nasty accident. A further quick health check is to see what kind of contact details a website provides. If there are no names of humans, telephone numbers or terrestrial addresses, it may just be that the site owner would prefer not to be contacted once he has received your money.
The suggestions listed here are not legal advice and they won’t solve all your problems. But in a crowded world like cyberspace, if you bear them in mind you may just be able to avoid some of the knocks, scrapes and accidents that are so frequently experienced on the Information Superhighway today.
Jeremy Phillips is a research director at the Intellectual Property Institute and a special projects consultant for Olswang