Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Responsible Net Commerce

Ethical Net Commerce | Copyright | Jurisdiction

Taking care of your corporate image on the Web.

Protect Your Image on the Internet

There is more than simply “hanging out your shingle” to having a presence on the Web. You need to be sure that you are conveying the right message and that you are not taking shortcuts that will hurt your business's reputation.

This page is focuses primarily on websites and blogs, but the information is pertinent to most business owners.

It also is Canadian-based, so you'll want to determine any specialized rules for your country and the jurisdictions where you do business.

Don't Be Labeled a Spammer

You don't want to become identified as a spammer (someone that sends out unsolicited email messages).

An email or phone call offering to “target market” addresses for your business is offering to spam others on your behalf. The consequences can be severe.

  • Canadian anti-spam legislation (CASL) came into effect on July 1, 2014 and has administrative monetary penalties (AMPs) up to $1 million for an individual and $10 million for entities, such as corporations, per violation.
  • Legislation in California can find you liable for thousands of dollars in damages if even one of your spam emails is sent to a location within California (or any other location with similar legislation).

Learn how to avoid being either the victim or perpetrator of spam or phishing attacks.

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Ethical Net Commerce

If you have a website and offer an emailed newsletter, update notices or other similar services, you will want to ensure that people are actually wanting your email.

This can take the form of a subscription option on your website or an invitation in an email response to a message originated by the other person.

What Are Opt-In Lists?

Be certain that those on your mailing list truly wish to receive the material you're sending. This process is called opt-in.

Allow Visitors to Choose

Allow your site visitors to choose to receive your emails (whether it is newsletters, special offers or promotional material) by having them check off the information they want. Don't use pre-checked boxes or other forms of “assumed” consent.

Then make it easy to unsubscribe if they change their mind.

Never “unsubscribe” from lists that you didn't subscribe to in the first place.

Confirming Opt-ins

Even with explicit permission, I'd recommend confirming opt-in requests by sending a message to the new address asking them to confirm their intention to subscribe (and not using that address until it is confirmed).

  • If you receive a reply, you know it is a legitimate request from someone that has access to that specific address. You can now add the address to your mailing list.
  • If you receive no reply within a reasonable time period, don't add the address to your list.

Avoid Annoying Pop-ups

Many sites have pop-up subscribe now notices that appear as soon as the person scrolls the content they came to the site for. While this probably improves your enrollment rate, it is annoying and is unlikely to produce a quality prospect. I bet many folks just automatically mark your emails as “junk” when they arrive.

Family Lists

While it may be OK to send a single message to your whole family, you might want to check first.

  • Not everyone wants to receive your pictures of Uncle Joe at the birthday party, particularly if they are on a lower-speed connection — and definitely not all of them.
  • Everyone knows someone in the family that loves to gossip. The electronic version is just as annoying.

“Opt-out” — Sneaky & Unethical

Marketing companies prefer the term “opt-out.”

“Opt-out” marketing, whether using pre-checked consent or adding users to your mailing list without their express permission, is unethical.

Opt-out is merely an attempt to sugar-coat spam. Shame on them!

It's simple: never do business with a spammer, whatever they call it.

Pre-checking Boxes = NO Choice

A number of very large (and not-so-large) companies use pre-checked boxes beside statements like, I would like to be notified about product updates and information of interest from our partners.

Why do this?

This practice resulted in an astounding 80% “assent” rate (compared an average of 0.1% response rate in traditional direct mail).

Pre-checked isn't consent.

People were not giving their consent. They were viewing the content they came to see, not looking for pre-checked permissions.

Companies were forcing people to uncheck these boxes (calling it opt-out) in order not to have their name added to a mailing list or contact information sold to other companies. Were you to send an invoice to these companies for services never rendered, they would call it fraud. I can't see much of a difference, can you?

Their “partners” could be anyone they can sell your personal information to including their parent company, affiliated companies or their advertisers.

Some companies that use these techniques are more ethical than others, but it's like dealing with an “ethical thief” (there is no such thing; sorry Robin Hood) because they've taken choice away from you.

Pre-Checking Boxes is Unethical (and Illegal in Canada)

This is an unethical “assumed-close” sales technique that is illegal in Canada.

By pre-checking the boxes they forced the user to take action to not register.

This is a shady practice, the equivalent of sending products to you without your consent then billing you for them (illegal because the assumption that you could send the products back is inadequate).

Cookie Opt-Outs Annoying

I find the current use of pop-up cookie notices generated by the European Union's privacy legislation similarly offensive, because they force you to take action NOT to be probed and followed by their multitude of tracking cookies and web beacons. Of course, opt-ins would be ignored, which tells you how sleazy this whole business really is (here's looking at you, Facebook).

Consumer Protection

Most North American jurisdictions give protection to the consumer — usually in the form of being able to keep the unordered merchandise without making any payment as well as a “cooling off” period for door-to-door sales.

Why should an electronic version be any different?

Marketing Lists

Never purchase a list of email addresses from anyone. Rather than bring you success, this is likely to get you listed as someone with questionable business ethics.

Marketers usually forge the sender's email address (rather than using their own) when making their unsolicited sales pitch. Does that sound ethical to you?

Spammers are Cowards

Spammers are cowards that only want to deal with the gullible respondents — those clicking on the links in the spam email — while the collateral damage (those angry about endless spam emails) is left to the owners of stolen email addresses.

Is that the reputation you want your organization to have?

Hiding Behind False Links

Spammers and scammers often mask the actual destination of clickable links within their messages by making it appear to go to a legitimate address, when in fact it goes to a redirected address.

Where Does That Link Go?

How can you tell? When hovering over the links in a message, look in the status bar to see the actual destination of the link. It is easy to mask the actual destination so that a link that appears to be "from your bank" takes you somewhere else.

Even so, I strongly urge you NOT to follow these links. Remember, these sites are built to steal from you: your passwords, your identity and your hard-earned money.

Facebook Obfuscates External Links

Interestingly, Facebook makes a practice of obfuscating the actual destination of advertising links on their site. Facebook responded to the Cambridge Analytica misuse of user data by delaying and deflecting until the issue cooled down. Facebook doesn't act like an ethical company and I find I cannot trust anything they say.

Beware of Phishing & Identity Theft

Legitimate companies don't warn you by email that your account is suspended. Notice that financial institutions and ISPs are often supposedly the “source” of these attacks (look behind the link to see the actual destination) but it can be any company where you have an account.

  • Such messages are an attempt to gain access to your account by requesting your user name and password under false pretenses. The threat of account suspension is designed to get you to panic and ignore common sense.
  • While you're entering your login information into the fake site, the thief is logging into your real account.
  • This is called phishing and leads to identity theft.
  • Because we post so much information about ourselves on social media, a more precise form of identity theft called spear phishing where the phishing email uses your name and often mentions specifics personal to you. Don't be fooled by this attempt to personalize spam.

Never follow a link contained in such an email. Your safest option is to delete the message.

If you must contact the company concerned, type an address you've obtained from a reliable source (e.g. an invoice or account statement) into the location bar of your browser or contact the company directly by phone (again acquired from a reputable source).

Resources to Help with Spam

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circled-C copyright symbol

Freely Available but Not Free

The Internet has become a huge repository of information and it is important to understand that much of that information is freely available, but is NOT free.

Do not assume that because you acquired a work for free, it is in the public domain. — Stanford University Libraries
My favorite way of explaining the concept of intellectual property to the illiterate tribesmen I encounter daily is Okay, imagine that all the sheet music in the world burned up in a huge bonfire, and then imagine that they threw on all the CDs. You can still hum the music, right? The music still exists, right? Well, that thing you can't touch, or buy, or break…that is what we own.Why you can't use music on your web site

Copyright is Automatic

Copyright is the legal term used to convey ownership. In Canada, copyright is automatically awarded to your body of creative work at the time of creation.

Don't be suckered into paying an organization to register your work (a common practice by vanity presses and unethical print-on-demand companies).

Protect Your Creative Work

If you are creating works you might want to belong to a creator's organization like the Canadian Authors Association to learn more about copyright and other important issues.

Copyright and the Internet

The Internet, just like other mediums, depends upon copyright protection to ensure that content is safe. No matter how noble the intention, the Internet should never be separated from other jurisdictions in terms of copyright protection.

The Education System is NOT Exempt

The education system tends to be among the worst offenders when it comes to abusing copyright (apparently lawyers are also big offenders).

Special interest groups have proposed that we should exempt the education system from having to respect copyright, particularly when it comes to information on the Internet. Essentially, they are proposing legalized theft.

Their argument that “it is for our children” doesn't hold water.

Why Should Teachers, Janitors and Other Suppliers Be Exempt?

If children's education is grounds for exempting copyright protection, why not stop payments to teachers, janitors or other suppliers as well?

Perhaps they place no value in the effort it takes to create intellectual property?

Copyright is Ownership

Copyright in its simplest terms is ownership.

All text and images you find on the Internet were created by someone and the copyright is retained by the owner unless there are express indications that either the text or the images or both are public domain.

It is usually best to assume that copyright exists unless you see explicit indications that it is not.

Verify Creative Commons Licenses

If you wish to share your own content, using a system such as Creative Commons, that is your prerogative and potentially provides a valuable asset to the community.

However, before you include other people's content on your site, be sure of their willingness to share that information.

  • If permission isn't clearly indicated, assume that you DON'T have permission.
  • Verify that you meet the criteria specified in any Creative Commons license present.
  • Search to see that the information wasn't copied illegally from elsewhere.

Unowned Content Can't Be Given Away

If a site contains other people's content, they have no right to give it away. You'll need to obtain permission from the original owner(s) to use it.

Don't Steal

If a search for the text or image shows up on a copyrighted site, don't use the content without meeting the original creator's guidelines for use. I most cases you'll need express written permission.

Unauthorized Use is Theft

Imagine someone else cashing your pay-cheque without your permission then spending your money for themselves. That is how copyright violation feels to the person whose copyrighted information is used with neither permission nor payment.

Balancing the Rights of Owners with the Public Good

There is the need to balance the rights of copyright holders with the public good. Eventually, the copyrighted material is placed into the public domain so that all can enjoy it. The time this takes varies by country.

In fairness, copyright law should NOT give companies like Disney a perpetual license while an individual creator's rights disappear at a specified time after death, denying their estate the benefits. A sunset law requiring release corporate copyright holdings (much like patents on pharmaceuticals) would level the playing field and release more into the public domain while encouraging companies to continue their creative efforts.

Copyright Trolls

There are also copyright abuses that break the spirit, if not the letter, of copyright law.

A copyright troll is a party (person or company) that enforces copyrights it owns for purposes of making money through litigation, in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic, generally without producing or licensing the works it owns for paid distribution. — Wikipedia

The rights of those holding legitimate copyright is damaged by copyright trolls (such as Prenda Law) who exploit the system, often illegally:

Copyright is a broken system, biased in favor of copyright owners at the public's expense, prone to harsh punishment and ruinous damages, steeped in the misleading and unhelpful rhetoric of "theft" and "piracy." A system so out of balance is a natural haven for lawsuit abuse. — EFF

Electronic Blackmail

Sending out threatening notices with cash settlements that are delivered anonymously by ISPs are hard to prove in court, yet many settle in fear of being exposed, especially if the content is porn or a similarly embarrassing content (often implied even if untrue).

[S]tatutory damages are also wielded as a club by entertainment, media, software, and technology companies. They can destroy competitors and dry up investment with mere threats of litigation, giving them veto power over new technologies and emerging artists. — EFF

The new NAFTA renegotiations appear to be based upon the exact same demands as the failed TPP Agreement that greatly threatens net neutrality and privacy rules.

Learning More

Learn more about copyright trolls and the frauds they perpetrate:

Obtaining More Information

These sites will give you a greater understanding of the issues and implications of copyright:

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Jurisdictional Issues

You may have to consider some jurisdictional issues.

Unlike a bricks and mortar business, once you're on the Internet, you can be subject to laws in other countries — even if you don't normally do business there.

The General Data Protection Regulation

The GDPR is a European regulation that defines how personal data should be collected, processed and stored. See Addressing the GDPR (PDF) for more.

How Does It Affect Me?

You are going to be affected if you have content on your site that may embarrass or be inconvenient to others. The Internet is a pretty wide-open arena and, like radio signals, it doesn't stop at a border because the rules change.

What's Legal

In most cases you're going to have to legally be accountable for the laws and general practices within the jurisdiction where your site is hosted as well as where you are doing business.

Specify Jurisdiction

Your site should have a terms of use that clearly states this jurisdiction to avoid the expense of having to defend yourself in another community or another country.

Unfortunately, there is a trend for countries to determine that there is no barriers to their jurisdiction.

Get Legal Advice

If there is any possibility that you are placing material that could get the attention of the authorities, you should consult legal counsel before you put it up.

Personal Data at Risk

There are very broad powers given to governments to force ISPs (web hosts) to give up your personal data (including email correspondence) and to close down your site if they believe you have broken the law.

Unfortunately, various governments have used the threat of terrorism to spy on their own citizens and to sometimes make it difficult or impossible to know the actual rulings or even how they are applied.

Secret Courts

Secret courts and private tribunals may sound like something out of a bad movie plot, but that is exactly what Snowden revealed about the practices used by the NSA (and are used by other governments).

Shadow Regulation

In addition, there are many forms of shadow regulation (deals between companies that regulate your Internet usage) that can cause your domain to suddenly be backwatered or eliminated without notice.

Examples are removing your listings on a search engine or making them fall farther down the results list than would normally happen. A site listed 100 pages into a Google search might as well not exist.

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Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.

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Updated: November 2, 2019