Things to Watch When Doing Business on the Web

Article excerpt

So your firm has decided to take that giant leap into cyberspace and set up a zippy Web site to attract new clients and enlighten the masses on your practice's proficiencies.

Before you become too enamored with your own Internet prowess, however, beware of some very real liabilities that may arise from your newly established global presence.

One potential problem can surface when your site provides links to other pages on the Web. If your site allows surfers to click to scholarly articles or information about upcoming events, you could be headed for trouble. "The issue is still up in the air," notes attorney Glenn Coffee, whose practice focuses on electronic law. Two recent lawsuits involving Web site links deal with the legal complications that may ensue when Web site holders allow users to click with abandon to sites owned by third parties. In Ticketmaster v. Microsoft, the holder of a Microsoft Web site dubbed Seattle Sidewalk found itself defending a suit against the ticket seller after the site provided a link to upcoming events in the Seattle area. Ticketmaster was peeved because the link didn't go to its home page with all its nifty advertising. Instead, the Microsoft site took users immediately to information about the event. That direct connection, says Ticketmaster, resulted in lost advertising sales. Another case, which has recently settled, was Washington Post v. TotalNews. In that situation, news services -- including CNN and Reuters -- charged that TotalNews, a news source directory, used frames to conceal news services' ad banners and replaced them with their own banners. But cyberspace legal battles of this ilk, some argue, defeat the purpose of the Web -- a virtual free flow of info. "Some say it's the nature of the Web," Coffee says. "If you limit or prohibit information, then you kill the Web." Coffee, however, notes the flip side. "The counterargument is that companies have an earned work product that needs protection." The possible legal complications associated with law firm sites have prompted the American Bar Association's Interactive Services Subcommittee of the Law of Commerce in Cyberspace to publish Web- Linking Agreements: Contracting Strategies and Model Provisions. The ABA suggests that Web site administrators contract with site owners to avoid legal problems later. Coffee, however, says the ABA's suggestions may be overkill. He maintains that as long as Web site administrators give credit where it's due to owners and clearly delineate copyrighted materials, contracts may not be necessary. But other problems may plague law firms that set up sites. Attorneys who offer legal information on their sites need to make clear to browsers that it's for educational purposes, not intended as legal advice. Otherwise, they may find an attorney-client relationship has formed. If the site is highly interactive between the firm and clients, attorneys need to be cognizant of privacy issues. …