E-Business – A Practical Guide to the Law by Amanda C. Brock

August 31, 2003

In September 2001 the National Consumer Council surveyed UK Web sites and concluded that UK sites were either unaware of, or were purposely flouting, laws relating to the Internet. In 2002 an Information Commissioner survey came to a similar conclusion. As a result a clear concise guide to the law relating to e-business is an important tool for businesses. This is especially pertinent as the Office of Fair Trading and the Information Commissioner have new powers to require businesses to cease offending behaviour under Stop Now orders. These are now provided for in the Enterprise Act 2002 (as of 20 June 2003) and have been renamed enforcement orders. The OFT in particular is only too happy to use these new powers as its handling of 0% credit deals recently demonstrated. Two areas where Web sites have been found particularly wanting have been in relation to data protection and the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 – two areas which are addressed in some detail by this book.

Brock has many years of experience in this area as in-house legal counsel at Dixons Group. She writes from the perspective of researcher and shopper rather than a lawyerish technology buff. She does explain technology where it is important to understand it in order to be able to apply the law to it but she does so in user-friendly laymen’s terms. As a result the book is useful for Luddite lawyers as well as Internet businesses. There are several e-business textbooks including ones produced by law firms but Brock’s strengths are her practical approach and clear simple writing style.

Brock’s book deals with the whole gamut of legal issues affecting e-business, including brand protection, content, advertising and consumer law, personal data, e-contracts, as well as a chapter specifically on ISPs (not surprising bearing in mind Brock’s involvement with Freeserve).

The book also includes useful checklists and a host of precedents at the end of the book as well as contacts and Web links for further information. In addition, Brock addresses issues relating to the use of e-mail and the Internet at work, to cover areas such as confidentiality, security, employee abuse, policies for employee use of e-mail and the Internet and monitoring of such use. There have been many legislative developments in this area as well as the issuing of guidance by the Information Commissioner’s office and employers need to take active steps to protect both themselves and their employees.

The brand protection chapter considers trade names and trade marks, database rights, copyright and domain names. She explains primary and secondary domains and mentions the relatively new top level domains which were approved by ICANN (.biz, .info, .name, .pro, .aero, .coop and .mu) together with an assessment of their value. The chapter also deals with metatags and their importance in increasing a site’s exposure in search engines and directories as well as a warning about abusing them, with an account of the Road Tech Computer Systems Limited v Mandata (Management and Data Services) Limited case. The issues around deep-linking and framing are also considered. This chapter is useful but would have benefited from a little more detail in parts.

The chapters on content and contracts are fairly comprehensive and include useful pointers on contract negotiation and analysis, especially in respect of Web site design and build, hosting, linking content and third-party relationships and the text is complemented by the provision of precedent agreements at the back of the book. A chapter on security addresses issues such as payment systems, encryption, and digital signatures.

In relation to consumer contracts, there is detailed treatment of the Distance Selling Regulations and Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 and advertising regulation is mentioned, along with the issues relating to trading with children, although a more comprehensive look at consumer law as it affects e-business might have been useful.

One of the biggest minefields for any business, let alone an e-business, is data protection. The Data Protection Act 1998 and the impending implementation in the UK of the EC Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications (2002/58/EC) are creating a raft of new rights for consumers and headaches for business. Brock gives a clear, basic account of the requirements of the DPA, including the role of the Information Commissioner, notification requirements, the treatment of sensitive data, subject access requests, cross-border transfers as well as the opt in/opt out conundrum. Cookies are also dealt with and a sample privacy policy is provided. However, most of the very important issues thrown up by the new Directive are not included which amply demonstrates the limitations of text books in this area. The law is changing so rapidly that they are out of date before they have even gone to print, a fact which Brock herself acknowledges in her introduction.

One weakness of the book is that it does not address issues relating to the Disability Discrimination Act. This is an area which many Web sites ignore at their peril and some mention of its requirements in this book would have been useful. Indeed, in July 2003 the RNIB announced that it would be assisting in UK court actions against companies whose Web sites do not comply with the DDA. The Disability Rights Commission is currently checking 1,000 Web sites across the public and private sectors, testing for basic compliance with recognised accessibility standards. Its report is expected by the end of 2003. As a result, it is to be hoped that the omission of DDA requirements will be rectified in any future edition of Brock’s book.

It may not quite have the magic of the latest Harry Potter book but, with the advantage of addressing some of the sexier issues in law, it is a practical, readable race through e-commerce legal issues and the author’s experience in, and enthusiasm for, this area are clearly demonstrated.

Helen Hart is Senior Legal Counsel at Centrica plc.