Last reviewed 20 January 2016

Electronic communications have developed relatively quickly and not every business complies with its legal requirements with regard to emails and websites. Staff, too, need to be aware of the requirements of the law so that the provision’s legal responsibilities are not jeopardised. Val Moore, small business and early years consultant, explains that most requirements are not onerous and once set up, are easy to monitor.

Emails

Company information

Business letter heads should contain specific information, and this information too should be on all email correspondence. Limited companies must show their registered office, their registered number and country of registration. Unregistered companies must show the address of their principal place of business. All should have a contact email address and ideally a contact telephone number.

This can be easily set up using a standard “footer”, or use the signature feature that most email software will have.

Disclaimers

Many companies also include a standard disclaimer. The Institute of Directors (IoD) suggests: “This email is confidential and intended for the use of the intended recipient only. If you have received this email in error please inform us immediately and then delete it. Unless it specifically states otherwise, this email does not form part of a contract”.

Inserting a disclaimer does not automatically prevent the sender from being held liable for the content or any breach of privacy.

Forwarding emails

Email correspondence should be treated in the same way as if the contents was on paper, or in a letter. Do not forward emails that would be discriminatory, offensive or illegal. Ensure employees are aware of this.

The email itself

Business emails must conform to certain regulations.

  • They must clearly show the purpose of the email and who has sent it.

  • They must allow the recipient to opt out of receiving further emails.

  • Marketing emails to consumers and unincorporated organisations can only be sent with their prior consent unless their address was obtained during a previous sale or negotiation for similar goods or services.

  • Any promotional offers or competitions must be obviously seen as just that. The rules must be clear and accessible.

Emails, once sent, are beyond the control of the sender: ensure all communications are of the highest quality of content.

E-commerce

The majority of provisions will not be involved in e-commence, but should have regard to the fact that an exchange of emails, like letters or verbal discussions, could lead to a legally binding contract.

Websites

Company information

The company information is required to be shown on the website — as for emails above. If the provision is VAT registered (most are not), the VAT number also needs to be included. If a member of a trade association or professional body, this also needs to be shown.

Cookies

Should the website use cookies then they must obtain the visitors’ consent to leave such cookies on their computers.

Disclaimers and Terms and Conditions of Trade

It is suggested that this should state that the website owner does not accept any liability that may arise from using or downloading information from the website. Where customers can buy from the website then the Terms and Conditions must be available on the website: it is good practice to have them there anyway.

Equality Act 2010

Websites should be accessible to all. For example, ensuring the visually impaired can use the website by means of suitable colours and increased print size, or by making sure there is an option to obtain information in large print.

Website content

Keep the information up to date. Marketing information must comply with the Advertising Standards Authority regulations in that adverts must be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

It is recommended to include a copyright notice and mark any trademarks that are being used.

Do not use images or text that are copyrighted to others without their permission, nor download copyright material without permission.

Website designers

Where a provision’s website is designed by another organisation, ensure that the design rights to the site are passed, in writing, to the provision. Failure to do so will result in the copyright remaining with the designer and this may mean that fees are incurred to change the content. (See our topic, Creating a Website.)

Data Protection Act

Emails and websites that collect or handle personal data come within the remit of the Data Protection Act (see our topic, Data Protection.

Employees using email and the internet

Many provisions will have a policy regarding employees’ use of email and accessing the internet from the organisation’s computers. Part of that policy will be the understanding that the employer may monitor emails to control inappropriate or illegal use of emails. As mentioned above, make it implicit that employees shall not forward emails that would be discriminatory, offensive or illegal, or bring the provision into disrepute.

Dependent upon the size of the organisation, software is commercially available which can:

  • log all emails sent and received — but not content

  • log all internet sites visited

  • stop access to specified sites

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, employers may look at an employee’s emails without the employee’s consent when:

  • recording transactions and important business communications

  • ensuring the law and policies are being adhered to

  • checking emails when an employee is away.

As well as putting in suitable clauses about the monitoring of emails into the provision’s relevant policies and procedures and, as necessary, into the contract of employment and/or staff handbook, a clause in the Terms and Conditions of Trade will inform others that emails may be monitored.

Beyond emails and websites

The Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive does not allow the sending of unsolicited commercial communications by email, nor by fax or other electronic messaging systems such as SMS (short messaging service) and MMS (multimedia messaging service) unless the prior consent of the addressee has been obtained.

Take advice

As with all things legal, if in doubt, then suitable professional advice should be sought.

Finally, some good advice from the American author Gretchen Rubin: Turn off your email; turn off your phone; disconnect from the Internet; figure out a way to set limits so you can concentrate when you need to, and disengage when you need to. Technology is a good servant but a bad master.