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Creating a Compliance Signoff Process for Your Website


by Glen Emerson Morris
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In December 2008 Sony BMG was fined one million dollars for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). It seems some of the 1000 odd Websites Sony maintains to promote its artists with collected information from kids under 13 without following the COPPA rules. Bad mistake.

This was an easily avoidable problem for Sony, but many companies aren’t doing much better. While many companies have established formal signoff processes for Website quality assurance, frequently no formal processes are in place for assuring compliance with applicable federal and state regulations, and that could prove costly. This approach is dead wrong in today’s world. Every commercial Website should have compliance signoff process to determine what the compliance standards are, if they apply to your Website, whether they are being met, and what not meeting them could cost.

Setting up a compliance signoff process (CSP) is relatively simple. An individual is designated compliance signoff process owner, and is made responsible for identifying and documenting all of the different standards a Website must comply with, and, most importantly, making sure they are complied with.

To accomplish this goal the CSP owner creates a signoff document that lists these standards along with a set of compliance milestones at key points of the development cycle to help monitor progress. That way management could identify and transfer resources to compliance bottlenecks, in time to stay on schedule.

Throughout the project the CSP owner tracks progress on the master compliance document, and at the end of the Website development cycle the CSP owner signs off on the completed document to close the compliance process.

The primary compliance standards that must be met include, but are not limited to, FTA rules and regulations, adult privacy, children’s privacy, copyright & trademark law, and the American’s with Disabilities Act.

FTC Rules Compliance
The FTC has published a document “Advertising and Marketing on the Internet: Rules of the Road,” which could be used to make a good checklist to track compliance with FTC regulations. Much of these rules boil down to simply requiring a Website to be honest, and post information about its policies. Once minimum standards are met, it doesn’t matter so much what the policies are, just that the Website communicates those policies to its customers honestly and accurately.

Adult Privacy Policy
In the case of Website’s collecting information about consumers over 13, an online privacy policy must state what will be done with the information collected. Companies can be sued if consumer information is used in ways contrary to the online policy. The two items to verify are whether a privacy policy is online, and whether it’s accurate.

COPPA
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) significantly restrict under what circumstances a Website may collect information about children under 13. A checklist for COPPA compliance is available that is explains a company’s responsibilities very clearly. The potential fines can reach one million dollars, so it pays to understand and comply with COPPA.

Special attention should be paid to information collected through social network components of the Websites. By linking to, or using technologies similar to, social networks many major companies have be set up Websites that collect considerable information about consumers. Some of these consumers happen to be kids, and they may trigger COPPA compliance obligations by companies that do not consider themselves to be using their Website market to kids. Unfortunately, that fact doesn’t provide much of a legal defense, as companies are finding out.

Copyright Compliance
Copyright compliance issues cover three main types of content; deliberately included copyright protected audio and video content (like background music), inadvertently included copyright protected content, and copyright protected content posted by consumers.

With deliberate content is always a good idea to track all of the original, licensed or public domain content used in a Website, and keep the licensing information readily available for verification. Content on the list without licensing information should not be used until licensing information is provided. When in doubt, pull it. The same applies to inadvertent use of copyright protected material. With multimedia an ever-increasing component of a company’s Website, also increasing are a company’s chances of inadvertently including copyright protected material in their Website. One company’s video footage of its employees’ break room included a few seconds with an episode of The Simpson’s in the background. When contacted, the Simpson licensing company wanted several thousand dollars to license just a few seconds of content, and the scene was deleted, and all liability avoided.

Content posted by consumers should be monitored daily and pulled if there’s any question of copyright violation.

Trade Mark Compliance
Trademark infringements can be very expensive to settle so it’s best to not make them. The most money I ever saved a company with a single defect report concerned the lack of a trademark symbol next to the word SuperBowl in a Website contest promotion. It turned out no one had applied for or received permission from the SuperBowl organization to use the trademark. The company’s lawyers estimated it would have cost about two million dollars in damages if the Website has gone live with the trademark infringement. It always pays to verify that no trademark appears in your Website without a TM symbol, and permission to use the trademark has been granted.

ADA
The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been interpreted to apply to online access, and companies that failed to follow it have been sued and subject to damages. In 2002 the Municipal Atlanta Regional Transit Authority (MARTA) was sued and held liable for not making its Website accessible enough to handicapped people. Some ADA standards may apply to your Website, and some may not be economically possible to implement, so it’s very important to know the ADA and measure the risks carefully.

Add state regulations and compliance becomes even more complicated, and things are only likely to get worse.

Given the Democratic majority in Congress, the next few years will probably see an increase in the depth and complexity of laws Websites must comply with. It’s going to be essential to have a process in place to make sure a Website complies with both current and future legislation. Failing to do that cost Sony a million. Let’s hope that lesson isn’t lost on our industry.


Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.





Copyright 1994 - 2008 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved


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