Got A Scare! (Important Legal Stuff All Should Know)
It's been a stressful week because of a scare I got concerning my website. Had to do a lot of reading on legal questions concerning websites, online businesses, US legislation and international jurisdiction.
I apologize in advance, this is going to be a long read but if you are writing reviews I think you should read it thoroughly.
DISCLAIMER: Before I continue I want to be perfectly clear this is not legal advice, I am not a lawyer and I'm sharing this as my best understanding of the subject to warn others.
- Wrote a negative review and got contacted by the product creator
- Was afraid of getting sued
- Took down the review and everything seems to have turned out fine
- I'm going to be much more careful with reviews in the future
- I'm including more legal information on my site
So this is what happened:
This year I've been building a site about strength training, exercise equipment and technology for seniors. I monetize it mostly through Amazon.
I have written a lot of pure informational content and "Best XX For " product recommendations. At some point I found a good review keyword about a certain product so I looked it up and wrote a review.
The review had been up for around month when I got a contact from the inventor in my comments. The contact was very friendly but he stated that there were several false statements in it and that he was very sad that I could write such a negative review without trying the product.
I contacted him through the email he had left on the comment and never heard from him. Couple weeks go by and another comment appear asking how he can contact me directly. I answered again through the same email that you can contact me through that email address.
At this point a creeping feeling at the back of my head told me to take the review down. I did just that and informed the inventor.
I week or so passed without a reply. I didn't think about it much until suddenly I got this urge to read through the review and read up if you can get sued for a negative review in the US. I also Googled the inventor, he clearly had money and powerful connections (actual globally famous people).
I read my review very carefully. I established in the very beginning that I had not tested the product and that the review was my opinion based on the marketing material.
My biggest negative point with the product was it's cost. It was very expensive and I speculated that they had huge profit margins and were essentially ripping off seniors. I also criticized their descriptions of the principles behind the product. Other than that the review was not definitely negative.
The problem was that I used terms like "I can assure you the product costs $30 at max to produce..." "In many cases companies like these that claim to produce domestically just assemble them in the US". I short, I stated some assumptions that could put the company in negative light under false pretense.
I realized right away this could be seen as libel or defamation in court. I started to get really nervous:
- The guy had not replied to me.
- They had plenty of time to gather evidence.
- I had actually written the review in a way that might be seen as libel.
- My legal disclaimers on the site were inadequate.
- I felt really bad about what I had written. The company actually seemed legit and with honest intentions.
- I was worried there will be a lawsuit waiting in my mail one day.
Rationally I knew I was overreacting a bit. But emotionally I was wreck. If you run an honest business, the risk of losing a lawsuit in case of getting sued is small. But here's the scary part, you can be sued even if everything is in order.
Even though the legal system in the Western World is based on the presumption innocent until proven guilty, as far as I can tell, you have to prove your innocence in the case you get sued.
You need a good lawyer just to achieve this. If you get sued by someone with deep pockets, you can be looking at thousands of dollars in legal fees and years of stress in the best case scenario.
I was feeling scared, nervous and to be honest ashamed. I decided to write one more email to the inventor explaining that I had read up on their company and his background, that I believed their product actually works and that I understood the high cost of domestic manufacturing. I offered my sincere apology and said I was sorry for any inconvenience I had caused. I also offered the possibility of some form of collaboration in the future.
The guy actually replied, once again in a very friendly and personal way so I think it was him, not a lawyer. He said he appreciated the emails and stated he was very busy and hadn't contacted because of that. He also told more about the background of the product and said we could look into collaboration in the future.
This was the end of our interaction. I felt relieved after getting a response from him.
I know that I had done something stupid and put myself in a position where I could get caught up in a stressful and expensive lawsuit.
I'm still not in the clear. They probably took dated screenshots of the original review, I would have. But fortunately my site is still relatively small, the page had only got 20 hits.
I haven't caused them any actual loss of business, so it would very expensive and risky for them to go after me legally as well. Most legit businesses don't want to get involved in lawsuits either if they can resolve the issue in any other way.
But I wanted to share this so that you don't have to spend any sleepless nights because of the same mistakes.
Here are some legal stuff you should look into if you are running an online business, especially if you are doing :
Defamation is the action of damaging the good reputation of someone; slander or libel. Generally speaking defamation needs to be all the following :
- published (like in a blog, seen by third parties)
- false (containing false facts or speculation)
- injurious (cause actual provable harm. This includes reputation)
- unprivileged (there are certain cases where the above don't count.)
So be very careful how you write you reviews and what you state in them as facts or even imply.
A negative review can also get you strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). I think this was the case with WA and some other company (WA won).
They are essentially false lawsuits designed to silence the target and can contain a lot of claims. The intention is usually not even to win the lawsuit, just cause harm to the target by directing most of their resources to the lawsuit.
They are costly to everyone involved, including the state, so many states have issues Anti-SLAPP laws. This still doesn't mean you are protected from these.
ADA stands for Americans with Disability Act. Apparently there have been cases where a disabled person has sued against a company due to their website not complying to ADA guidelines.
Lawsuits against online businesses and website, especially online stores, because of ADA compliance issues are on the rise.
While I'm all for making the Internet accessible to everyone, it just seems incredible it's possible to get sued and lose because someone couldn't access your website with special tools.
But this is the case. Apparently there are currently law firms that are capitalizing on these lawsuits so they are actually looking for sites to take into court.
I couldn't find information if a blog or an affiliate site can be sued because of ADA regulations but I did find at least one shopify store lawsuit. Would love to hear more about this from you guys.
Finally we have the classic, copyright infringement. This is pretty well covered in the training here in WA.
In short, everything online is owned by the creator and you need a permission to use it. The owner can allow the use without permission, like is the case with stock photos (Pixabay, Shutterstock etc.)
As far as I can tell, you are allowed to embed a YouTube video on your site if the video allows sharing. It's polite to mention the creator and you can't claim you have created the video.
I've been doing this quite a lot myself. What got me a bit nervous is that I did find a couple years old Reddit post where the poster was asking about a possible lawsuit and a cease and desist letter against his website that had a third party YouTube video embedded. They were asking 170k in compensation or they were going to sue.
That's something that would ruin anyones day and probably whole business even if they had the right to share the video. So I'm going to be extra careful with videos as well in the future.
Legal Information you need on your site
Finally I wanted to share the legal information I'll be stating on my site in the future and you should probably too.
I'm going to add an automated banner that displays a reference of the legal information at the start of every post because in many cases it isn't enough that you have it somewhere on the header or footer menu under a link.
Such is the case with Affiliate disclosure according to Amazon for example.
On a regular blog or a website it should at least state that you don't make any warranties about the completeness, reliability and accuracy of the information.
That any action a visitor takes upon the information they find at your site is strictly at their own risk and that you are not liable for any losses and/or damages in connection with the use of your website.
Affiliate disclosure is very important for complying with many affiliate vendor guidelines, especially Amazon and FTC regulations.
You need to state it very clearly that your content contains affiliate links and that your earn a compensation if something is purchased through said links.
It's apparently not enough to have a link in the footer for example, the guidelines are getting more strict and it seems you should state this information in every post.
Some have even speculated that you should include a statement next to each affiliate link.
If you are in health or fitness niche or in any niche that involves advice concerning health you need to have a medical disclosure.
You need to state very clearly that the information you are sharing is not medical advice. You should also state that you are not liable for the information being true, accurate, complete, current or non-misleading.
There are a lot of good free ones out there, just Google around.
ADA Compliance if an online store
The ADA lawsuits against websites have so far been about website readability and functionality with screen readers that visually impaired people use.
If you want to be absolutely sure your site can't be sued for ADA compliance, make sure it works with screen readers under every browser and operating system.
All in all I'm very grateful I had this scare. It forced me to take the legal side of running an online business seriously.
It also made me think very hard about the way I write and if I even want to write reviews. At least not negative ones. I'm going to be especially careful about making any (especially negative) claims or speculation about products I have not tried myself extensively.
Remember that there are actual people behind the products you review and everything online is considered public. I know some of them do deserve the critique, but I will consider very carefully if I want to position myself so that I can get sued, even if I'm being completely honest.
I have seen a ton of reviews where people have not actually used the product and imply or straight of state that it's a scam because they read it on another review. Never do this. It can get you in a lot of trouble.
I would love to hear other peoples experiences and thoughts on legal stuff in online business so the word is yours!
P.S. The picture is taken today close to where I live. We didn't see the sun for a whole month! Today the weather was beautiful and we had an hour or two of sunshine. The lake wasn't frozen yet even though there's snow so it looked almost magical. Man, I wish I could get sun every day :)