Web and IT professionals unconcerned with law

Web site proprietors don’t recognize the legal risks they are taking, says consultant and New Zealand Computer Society (NZCS) fellow Ian Mitchell.

Attendees at a NZCS Web workshop earlier this month, asked to rank the most important aspects of running a Web site, did not even rate as a low priority the establishment of site policies for the use of copyright material or responsibility for statements made on the site by third parties.

“No one was interested and they ought to be,” Mitchell says. “We have already had at least one court case involving online defamation (by former ISP manager Alan Brown of former Domainz CEO Patrick O’Brien). That was on a mailing list, but similar things can happen on Web sites.”

The society is attempting to raise awareness of legal responsibilities of site operators and other IT professionals with a series of 10 monthly seminars on “The Law of IT.”

The attendees at the Web workshop ranked advice on Web site usability as their top priority for future gatherings, followed by a need for a deeper knowledge of “How the Internet really works”. Domain name servers, mail servers, routing redundancy, caching and proxy servers were singled out as possible detailed topics.

E-mail issues such as headers, list servers, autoresponders, handling double opt-in and spam filters came third. Also figuring highly were such perennials as organizing e-mail marketing campaigns, content management and search-engine placement. But awareness of the law and policies came nowhere.

In the wider IT perspective, the need to take legal precautions is still not on computer practitioners’ radar, Mitchell says.

“I’ve been an expert witness in court cases where software companies have found to their surprise that they didn’t own the software they had developed.” Misunderstandings arose because of complex contracts and inadequate documentation, he says, as well as lack of attention to the legal detail. Lack of awareness lays a developer open to possible legal “bullying” by the client.

Mitchell acknowledges that much online and IT law is still unclear, and will inevitably be established by case law. But a number of principles transfer in evident ways from bricks-and-mortar trading to trading online. “Passing off”, for example, the offense of presenting an enterprise deceptively so it can be confused with another, perhaps better known organization, is well defined by case law, Mitchell says.

The first “Law of IT” discussion is scheduled for July 16.