Peanut butter and jelly. Bert and Ernie. Shoes and socks. Siegfried and Roy. Websites and policies. These are all famous duos that most think about in tandem. Wait, what do you mean you don’t think about websites and policies in tandem?! My hope is that you will ad infinitum after reading this post (and what is a good blog post without a good Latin phrase thrown in?).
The Use Policy or Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) tells your visitors what they can and cannot do with the content and features of your website. Many times, the AUP includes language prohibiting users from using the site’s content and/or features for any unlawful, fraudulent, harmful or otherwise unauthorized purposes. There is also usually language indicating that, by continuing to use the site, users agree not to reproduce, copy, sell, harm or otherwise steal or damage any content, software, network or other part of the website. If you allow users to submit comments, reviews, or other information and you would like users to abide by certain content standards, you can lay out those expectations under this policy. For comment submissions and other interactive features of your website, this is also where you include language limiting your liability for loss or damage resulting from use of the site and/or its features.
Website disclaimers set out to limit the website owner’s liability. “What liability?” is what you are probably thinking. As the owner of a website, you are responsible for all of its content regardless of its origins. Disclaimers provide a vehicle for website owners to essentially say, “This is the intended purpose and use of my site and I am not responsible for misbehavior or misuse on the part of users.” Disclaimers are certainly not shatterproof but they serve a valuable function of putting the public on notice that owners will not assume responsibility for unintended use or misuse of the site or the site's contents and features.
If you sell a product or service through your website, you need a refund policy. Some of the other policies may seem difficult to wrap your head around if you are not an attorney, or have never been sued, because they address issues that may never come to fruition. However, refund policies address an issue that is certain to come up if you sell anything through your website. An effective refund policy addresses what is eligible to be refunded, when and how refund requests should be made and when and how refunds will be issued. When you display this policy, it cuts down on the number of inquiries you receive, allows you to easily direct appropriate inquiries to the policy, and generally makes the website’s business look more legitimate.
Blog comments. Product/service reviews. Testimonials. These are the types of comments website owners want. Spam, offensive or obscene language, advertisements, and other unproductive discourse are not what website owners want. Use your comment policy to inform users about what will happen to abusers of your website and comments you deem undesirable or inappropriate for your website. Another important element to the comment policy is the part where you tell your users you reserve the right to use their comments. This is known as a grant of license and conveys to users that you are not claiming ownership over content they contribute to your website (comments, reviews, etc.), but you are claiming a right to use that content. By submitting content to your website, they are consenting this provision.
Changes to Policies
Make sure you outline how you will communicate changes to your policies. From email notices to announcements on the site itself, there are a number of ways to give your users notice that a policy (the contract between you and them) has changed. Decide how you wish to communicate changes to your users and stick to it.
The reality of being a business owner is that one day someone is likely going to claim that your website did something wrong to him. There is also a chance that this someone will feel so aggrieved that he will want to sue you. Because of the nature of the world we find ourselves in, having a dispute resolution policy is a no-brainer. The thought is certainly unpleasant but if you ever find yourself being sued, you will be grateful for your foresight. Among other things, this policy or provision allows you to dictate the important parts of dispute resolution: how disputes are to be resolved (likely arbitration) and where they are to be resolved (wherever you are).
Hopefully you now understand some of the nuances of website policies. If you do not have one, there are samples and templates everywhere and you are officially out of excuses. If you do have one, congrats! Give it a periodic review to ensure that it is still doing what you want it to do.