The preponderance of the laws that regulate commercial conduct online are the same laws that regulate commercial conduct offline: contract law, the law of torts, commercial law, consumer law, intellectual property law, and so on. If you know a little (or a lot) about publishing law, you know a little (or a lot) about digital publishing law.
But doing business on the internet involves added complexity and added uncertainty. Added complexity, because a new layer of laws veils the legal backcloth. Added uncertainty, because the new and evolving technologies may not yet have been digested by the system of legal precedent – and by the time a recognisable body of jurisprudence about a technology has emerged, the technology may be obsolescent. Complexity, uncertainty and evolution are three causes of widespread non-compliance with the law.
The extent of non-compliance should not be underestimated. For example, the E-commerce Regulations demand, with the inevitable exceptions, that e-retailers must make available to their customers “appropriate, effective and accessible technical means” allowing the customer to identify and correct input errors before placing an order. This may be dealt with by means of a “confirm your order” page: but anyone with a passing familiarity with online shopping will know that as often as not there is no pre-order correction procedure.
Some fairly common internet practices are outlawed. For instance, many websites will send marketing emails to users who do not opt-out – when in some cases they should only be sending the emails to users who opt-in.
But there is more than just embarrassment at stake if you fail to comply with the laws relating to digital publishing. Contracts of sale that can be rescinded at the option of your customers; Trading Standards investigations and prosecutions; investigations and adverse decisions of the Information Commissioner; and civil claims by customers: the risks are varied, and non-compliance can be expensive.
Because of regular changes in the law relating to the internet and the technologies from which it is built, digital publishers should ensure not only that they have the expertise to identify the issues, but that they regularly update that expertise and regularly audit their compliance.