Author: robert

Work Form Home

Just a couple of years ago, the future of work-from-home (WFH) seemed assured. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to continuing operating, companies around the world allowed office workers to work remotely.  Major companies including Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow and Shopify announced plans to allow permanent remote work.

Until the COVID pandemic began in 2020, work-from-home programs had been gaining ground very slowly. The pandemic accelerated this progress by about 40 years!

Studies quickly claimed that at-home workers were actually more productive than their in-the-office counterparts1 2 3 4 5.  Some studies also reported that workers put in more hours when working from home, due to less time being spent commuting. 

The benefits of working from home seemed very clear!

Employee Benefits

  • No daily commutes
  • Living and working from lower-cost or more desirable communities
  • Achieving a better balance of work and home responsibilities

Employer Benefits

  • Reduced expenses for office space
  • Higher employee satisfaction and retention
  • Improvements in productivity

But surprisingly, as the pandemic waned, attitudes started to shift.  Companies began to order employees back to the office several days per week (a “hybrid” work model).  Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously said, “I don’t know how you build great management virtually.”

Additional studies7 8 surfaced showing a decrease in productivity among work-from-home employees.

However, the forced return to the office may be driven more by management attitudes than by actual productivity data.

A study conducted by Microsoft6 in September 2022 found that “85% of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive” and “49% of managers of hybrid workers struggle to trust their employees to do their best work.”

This lack of trust in worker productivity has led to what Microsoft researchers termed productivity paranoia, where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased.

Another survey, conducted by Citrix, found that half of all business leaders believe that when employees are working “out of sight,” they don’t work as hard. 

In addition to issues of productivity, manager’s report that “Supervising, training, mentoring, and building firm culture is much harder” with fully remote workers than with workers who come in a few times per week7.

Today, a plurality of companies seem to be settling on a hybrid model, requiring office employees to be onsite several days per week. This model offers some of the advantages of full-time WFH programs, but doesn’t allow employees to work far from the office, or allow companies to take advantage of lower salaries in other parts of the country. A few companies have committed to permanent, full-time remote employment. This can be a significant advantage in recruiting and retaining employees who prefer remote work.

There are many studies and statistics about work-from-home, and the conclusions differ. One thing is clear: WFH has become a significant part of the jobscape in the United States. According to Forbes9, as of July 2023, 12.7% of employees worked remotely full time, and 28.2% worked in a hybrid job (split between remote and in-office work).

So, Is WFH More or Less Productive?

As a data scientist, I can’t draw any conclusions about WFH productivity. I’ve reviewed the articles listed in the references, and many others. Most of the “studies” are informal surveys. All use different methodologies, ask different questions, and even have different definitions for productivity. It appears that work-from-home can be more productive than in-the-office work, and it can be less productive, depending on many factors.

As a manager, I believe that remote workers pose significant challenges, and require new skills. Management’s commitment to mastering these skills will be a big factor in determining if a remote workforce can be successful and productive.

Managing Work-From-Home

Remote management is still evolving, but there are already a few key principles and techniques that have proven effective. None of these things should come as a surprise to a good manager. We are not re-inventing management – we’re simply adapting the things we already know to a different environment. But the specific skills and tools required to manage a remote workforce are changing. While many managers are resisting this change, the ability to lead remotely will be key to a management team’s success in the future.

Here are some of the best practices that have been established for remote management:

Make rules, policies, procedures, and expectations clear. Publish everything on an internal website, and review policies and procedures with employees regularly. Even terms like “complete tasks within two days” can be ambiguous when dealing with a distributed workforce, so don’t make assumptions.

Overcommunicate. Communication isn’t as effective when we can’t rely on social cues and body language, so double-down on communicating important information. Use websites, email, group meetings, and one-on-one meetings to convey and repeat important messages.

Facilitate informal communication. In a traditional office environment, employees often drop in on one another to ask quick questions or share ideas. It’s a little harder to make this happen in a remote environment. Two things are important:

  • Overlapping hours (“core hours”). There should be days and times when everyone is expected to be working.
    Don’t make this too stringent! If everyone is expected to be online M-F, 9:00-5:00, many of the advantages of remote work are lost. Instead, choose something like MWF, 9-12:00 and 1-5:00. Most employees will still be available at other times, but outside the core hours, they’re free to run errands or take breaks.
  • Select an online chat tool for everyone to use. It must be easy to fire off a quick question, or to set up a phone conversation or video chat if more discussion is needed. Small companies often start with Skype, while larger companies often graduate to Slack.

Use collaborative tools. Collaborative tools allow team members to contribute to shared projects, to give input and feedback on one another’s work, to merge work from several team members, and to “release” finished work-products.

This is an area where the software industry is well ahead of other businesses. Some of the largest software projects in the world have been run remotely for decades. This includes the Linux kernel, an open-source operating system consisting of over 27 million lines of code, contributed by 13,500 remote developers from over 1,000 companies!

Schedule brainstorming. Despite what proponents of in-the-office work will tell you, brainstorming and problem solving rarely happen in informal hallway meetings. Such conversations are more likely to be about kids’ ball teams, or favorite recipes. Actual brainstorming and problem solving usually take place when people meet specifically to discuss ideas. But some studies have shown that online meetings are less likely to produce creative solutions10 11.

To foster creativity, schedule meetings specifically for brainstorming, and stimulate creativity with color, humor, games and challenges. Skip the PowerPoint presentation!

Encourage social interactions. Employees work and communicate better with one another when they have a sense of personal connection. Use a variety of tools to help team members connect with one another. This can include personal profile pages on an internal website, a group chat application, and even online social meetings. (I know of one company that has a weekly online “beer bust.”)

Track progress and productivity. Productivity is an issue, whether employees are in the office or remote. Use tools to track key productivity metrics for individuals and team. It’s important to position this correctly. Don’t look at tracking tools as monitoring employees. Rather, share the data and discuss it regularly with team members. Use it as a tool for identifying problems early, and working together to solve them.

Plan for onboarding. Managers often comment that it’s very hard to bring new employees up to speed in a remote environment. Successfully incorporating new people into a remote team requires planning.

  • Make sure all important information is online, and that someone is available to answer questions or clarify written information. Update the information when there are questions.
  • Have new employees “shadow” a more senior employee while they come up to speed.
  • Assign a mentor to each new employees, and schedule regular chats with the new employee and the mentor.

Understand issues. Managers should always be understanding of issues faced by employees. Some unique challenges that surface in a remote workforce include:

  • Distractions while working at home.
  • Poor understanding of tasks and objectives.
  • Lack of communication with teammates.
  • “Video burnout.”
  • Feelings of isolation, stress, or depression arising from remote work.

Give employees opportunities to talk about concerns and issues, and work with them to find solutions.

Be ready to support home office conversions. Recognize that not everyone has a suitable place to work at home, and have a policy to provide assistance. This could range from payments for noise-cancelling headphones, to office furniture, to computer loans.

Invest in training. Remote work requires new management and communication skills, as well as specific knowledge of technologies, tools, and techniques. Investing in training is important to ensure success.


The COVID pandemic greatly accelerated the adoption of work-from-home, but it has now been accepted into the mainstream employment market. Studies show that employees strongly prefer the flexibility of WFH.

In July 2023, 11% of the job listings posted on LinkedIn were fully remote, but those listings attracted 50% of all applications12. In 2023, an incredible 98% of all workers expressed a desire to work from home at least part time9, and 32% said they would take a pay cut to work remotely.

Companies that learn how to build and manage a remote workforce will have a significant competitive advantage in hiring and retaining staff, as well as substantial savings on office space and salaries.

About the Author

Robert Nicholson has managed distributed, remote, and off-shore staff for over two decades. More recently, he has taught entirely remote classes and advised remote graduate students as an instructor at San Jose State University.


  1. Study: Teleworkers More Productive—Even When Sick. Aliah D. Wright. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). February 13, 2015.
  2. Is a mobile workforce your business’s best strategy for boosting productivity? Avast. November 14, 2018.
  3. State of Remote Work 2021. OWL Labs. September, 2021.
  4. Executives feel the strain of leading in the ‘new normal.’ Future Forum. October 2022.
  5. Working from Home Increases Productivity. Shayna Waltower. Business News Daily. May 26, 2023.
  6. Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong? Microsoft. September 22, 2022.
  7. WFH’s Staunchest Proponents Just Dropped a Bomb: Fully Remote Workers Are Officially Less Productive. Jane Thier. Fortune. July 6, 2023.
  8. The Evolution of Working from Home. Jose Maria Barrero, Steven J. Davis, Nicholas Bloom. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). July, 2023.
  9. Remote Work Statistics And Trends In 2023. Kathy Haan. Forbes Advisor. June 12, 2023.
  10. Workers Think Less Creatively in Zoom Meetings, Study Finds. Iam Sample. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). June 8, 2022.
  11. Thinking Inside the Box: Why Virtual Meetings Generate Fewer Ideas. Edmund L. Andrews. Stanford Graduate School of Business. June 29, 2022.
  12. Remote and hybrid jobs are making a comeback. Jennifer Liu. CNBC. July 17, 2023.

As the population in the United States ages, business leaders are discovering that older workers are not only “up to the job,” but may in many cases be better at it than younger employees. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics1, the over-65 age group is the fastest growing segment of the job market, and more than 13 million Americans in this age group are still working.

Here are a few of the reasons why older workers can be a great choice for employers:

(1) Focus on the Job

Early- and mid-career workers are often preoccupied with career advancement. Their focus is on the things they need to do in order to move on to the “next job.”

Older workers tend to be less concerned with advancement, and more focused on satisfaction and accomplishment in their current job.

(2) Good Interim Workers

Older workers have the experience and skills to fill many positions. They can be an excellent choice to fill a position on a temporary basis, while you conduct a search for a permanent hire.

(3) Great Learners

Older workers have had to re-invent themselves many times over the course of their careers. They know how to go about acquiring new knowledge and skills.

While short-term recall and rapid recall decline as the brain ages, studies show that older brains are actually better at integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge. Studies also show that the decline in rapid recall is largely due to the fact that older people simply know more, so there is more knowledge for the brain to sift through.

(4) Strong Work Ethic

According to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey2, “Nearly six in 10 respondents cited work ethic as one of the big differences between young and old. Asked who has the better work ethic, about three-fourths of respondents said that older people do.”

(5) Loyal

According to a report published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics3, “the length of time a worker remains with the same employer increases with the age at which the worker began the job.” The report found that tenure for workers with their current employer was highest for the oldest workers at 10.2 years. For those between the ages of 55 and 64, this number was 9.9 years and 7.6 years for those between 45 and 54 years old.

(6) Strong Networks

Older workers have larger networks of colleagues and associates to draw on. A study conducted by The Center on Aging and Work at Boston College found that 46.3 percent of employer respondents said that their older employees have stronger professional networks and client networks compared to younger workers.

(7) More Productive

Surprisingly, studies have shown that productivity increases as workers age4. This may be due to greater knowledge and experience, or to better focus.

(8) Better Leaders

Older workers score high on tasks requiring leadership, detail-orientation, organization, listening, writing skills and problem solving — even in cutting-edge fields like computer science.

Businesses are Taking Note

These are a few of the reasons why companies are turning to older workers. In G7 countries, over 150 million jobs are expected to shift to workers over 55 by 2030, accounting to more than a quarter of the workforce5. In Japan, workers over 55 are expected to account for 40% of the workforce6.


  1. Who’s Working More? People Age 65 and Older. Kenneth Terrell. AARP. November 22, 2019.
  2. Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change. Pew Research Center. February 14, 2010.
  3. Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, Marital Status, and Health for those Born 1957-1964. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. August 22, 2023.
  4. Productivity in older versus younger workers: A systematic literature review. C A Viviani et al. Work. 2021.
  5. Better with Age: The Rising Importance of Older Workers. James Root et al. Bain & Company, 2023.
  6. How can Japan turn its ageing workforce into an advantage? Kate Birch. Business Chief Asia. July 24, 2023,

WordPress Multisite is a very powerful tool. It allows you to manage multiple WordPress sites from a single admin panel.

Pages and posts on each site are still managed separately, but themes, plugins, backups and security are managed centrally. This makes it much easier to manage a group of related websites.

In addition to the basic Multisite capabilities, I highly recommend a few plugins that extend the multisite paradigm:

  • Network Shared Media – allows you to share media files across your websites.
  • Multisite Plugin Manager – improves plugin management; allows you to mass activate/deactivate plugins across your network of sites.
  • Multisite User Sync – synchronizes users across your network of sites.

The downside of WordPress Multisite is that moving a multisite network from one hosting server to another can be difficult.

I recently moved a network of websites ( and 18 associated sites) from BlueHost to SiteGround. I found a pretty painless, step-but-step process for making the move, which I describe below.

  1. Go to your current Multisite dashboard. Install and activate the UpdraftPlus Premium plugin. This is a paid plugin… but believe me, it’s worth it!
  2. Do a complete backup of your website, and download all the files to your desktop computer.
  3. Go to your new host. Add the domain for the root (or original) site of your multisite network.
  4. Change the DNS pointers to your root site to point to the new hosting server, and wait for the changes to propagate.
  5. Go to the control panel for your new host. Install WordPress, and be sure to check the “enable multisite” checkbox.
  6. Install and activate the UpdraftPlus Premium plugin on the new host.
  7. Upload the backup files from your desktop computer, and run a restore.
  8. Verify that the root site is working correctly on your new server.
  9. For each of the additional sites in your multisite network:
    • Add the domains on your new server; point them to the base domain directory.
    • Change the DNS pointers for each of the additional domains.
  10. Don’t forget that, if you have email accounts associated with the domains in your network, you’ll need to move the email accounts to your new hosting service as well.

see-sawIn the early days of the World Wide Web, it provided a level playing field for anyone with something to say. If a website published good content, it could rise quickly through the ranks of search engine results, and get placement in major Internet directories. In short order, a small website could become a widely-recognized resource.

Now, in 2018. this is no longer the case.

I am currently experiencing this firsthand with a project I am working on.

I have a new website,, which provides information, resources, help and support for erectile dysfunction sufferers and their partners. There is already a great deal of information about ED on the web, but we are trying to do two things that other sites are not:

  1. We tailor our content specifically to the needs of the ED community. We participate in many online forums, where we see the questions that people are asking. We sponsor ongoing survey research to understand how ED affects men and their partners. We use this information to prioritize our content development.
  2. We provide links to clinical research to support and justify the information we provide.

Despite the fact that my site provides very useful, relevant, and accurate content, I am struggling to gain visibility and traffic.

The purpose of this article is to explain why.

The Rise of Megasites

Search engines give better placement to sites with a high Internet presence – that is, with many high-quality inbound links. (In the past, we could estimate this Internet presence with a measure called Google PageRank. Google has stopped making this metric public, so we now use metrics such as the Moz Domain Authority, or AHREFS Domain Rating.)

Large websites have lots of inbound links, and therefore a high rank.  The sites pass the power of their rank on to every page on the site… so as sites become larger, the number of inbound links increases, and each page on the site becomes harder to compete with.

In the case of my own site,, I have many inbound links… but I can’t begin to compete with the number of links to megasites such as And therefore, it is very difficult for pages on my site to compete with pages on the WebMD site.

Authoritative Links

Search engines give preference to websites with “authoritative” links pointing to them. These authoritative links typically come from news sites, government sites, and educational sites.

Large sites tend to accumulate these high authority links. If someone at a major publication is writing an article on erectile dysfunction, they are likely to include a link to information on WebMD… and much less likely to include a link to a small website such as mine.

Thus, sites that already have a strong web presence grow stronger and stronger, and it is virtually impossible for small sites to catch up.

The Consequences

If the web is no longer a level playing field, a small number of megasites will come to dominate broad categories of web searches… and it will become virtually impossible for new sites to establish themselves by providing better content or services.

How do you know you’ve been hacked?

shutterstock_107248619Often, the first sign of hacking is that your friends get email that you did not send.  The email has your ‘from’ address.  If may reference specific details of the relationship between you and your friends.  And it will most likely contain a link to some sort of login page for a service that you use (such as PayPal or a bank website).  The login page is faked – the hackers are trying to trick your friends into entering their login information.

Another warning sign is unexpected activity in one or more of your online accounts.  Someone is using your accounts, and it’s not you!

Most often, hackers obtain information about you by downloading a virus onto your computer.  In addition to your e-mail info, the virus could potential find lots of other things:  bank account info, account login info, confidential business documents, etc.

What To Do If You’ve Been Hacked

If you suspect you have been hacked, there are several things you should do right away:

Run a virus scan on all computers that you use.

Change all of your passwords for every online account.

Contact your bank, and monitor your bank balances and credit card statements.  Your bank will advise you to change your bank accounts and credit cards, and sign up for an identity protection service if you don’t already have one.

Consider reporting this to the FBI cyber-crime unit, and see if they have any additional advice:

Being hacked can be very serious.  Please don’t take it likely.

If you’d like to know more about avoiding hackers, and “staying safe on the Internet,” consider taking my online course:

gender-equalityIt’s become commonplace to beat up Silicon Valley companies for lack of diversity. Fear of PR repercussions probably had a lot to do with Google’s extreme response to James Damore’s internal memo.

There is a lot of emotion on both sides of this issue, but it is something that needs to be discussed.  I’d like to share my own perspective.

I have worked and managed in Silicon Valley for more than 40 years. I’ve worked at some of the best-known companies in the Valley, as well as a number of venture-funded startups. Throughout my career, affirmative action has been a major goal, and has become institutionalized in the culture and practices of most companies.

But after more than 40 years, efforts to increase diversity have not solved the problem. In fact, these efforts have barely moved the needle.

I was once congratulated by the HR department at Oracle, because my department had the best record in the company for “hiring, retaining, and promoting women.” Oddly enough, I pretty much ignored the affirmative action goals that I was given. I tried to hire the best people for the job, and then give them opportunities (and mentoring) to help them be successful in their jobs. I don’t recall ever taking into account supposedly gender-related factors in my management decisions.

And as it happened, that worked out pretty well. I had a great team… probably the best I’ve ever worked with.

But here’s the thing: when I exceeded the company goals for hiring and retaining women, it probably meant that another department failed to meet theirs. Or perhaps another company missed their targets. Because, at the end of the day, we were all hiring from the same pool.

Now, I understand that there are barriers to women and minorities in the workplace, and I am not dismissing them. Certainly there are some companies in Silicon Valley where discrimination and sexual harassment are egregious. But by and large, most companies try to do the right thing. And they have been trying for a long, long time.

It’s time to recognize the fact that this is a broad societal problem, and there is only so much that any company can do to solve it. Believe me, the biggest challenge in Silicon Valley has always been recruiting good people, and I think most managers don’t care anything about a person’s gender or race if they can get the job done.

We need more people in STEM fields, and that means we need to draw on a large and diverse pool. But it’s time to get real. Building that pool is not the sole responsibility of the companies that do the hiring.

40 years of affirmative action have not worked. Isn’t it time to look elsewhere for solutions?

telemarks-guide-to-dogsContent-based websites and products are rarely glamorous, and are often disparaged by investors and developers. But there is a huge, overlooked advantage of content-based products…  they retain their value for a long, long time.

I was a co-developer of Telemark’s Guide to Dogs, which was released on CD-ROM in 1995. The disk contained all sorts of information about dog activities, profiles and photos of 168 AKC-recognized dog breeds, and a “dog breed selector” that helped users to find the ideal dog breeds for their lifestyles and preferences.

The product was originally self-published. It was later licensed to The Learning Company, where it sold over 45,000 copies and won a National Educational Media Network Silver Apple Award in 1997.

When the CD-ROM market began to die, the dog breed selector and profiles were licensed to the IAMs pet food company for use on their website, In addition to paying license fees for the product, IAMs paid for regular updates, as the AKC added new breeds and modified breed standards. (In 2017, IAMs changed their branding strategy, and did not renew the license.)

The Dog Breed Selector, Dog Breed Comparer, and over 200 dog profiles and photos are now hosted on an ad-supported website, The extensive content has high SEO value.

The products and content are available for purchase or licensing.

In short, an information content product has generated revenue for 22 years, and still has value. There are very, very few technology products and businesses that can make the same claim.


consumer-rightsThe Consumer Review Fairness Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2016, protects consumers’ rights to post online reviews.

In recent years, many companies and service providers have required their customers to sign contracts that prevent the consumer from posting online reviews.  Some contracts assert a copyright interest in any review written by the customer, effectively preventing publication and sharing of the review.  One of the biggest offenders in this regard is a company called Medical Justice, which provides standard contracts for use in the medical profession

In some cases, companies have even sued customers who broke the agreements and posted disparaging reviews.

The new law invalidates contracts that prohibit consumers from posting reviews.  The law does not invalidate existing laws against libel and slander.

Learn more about the business of online reviews at the Rating and Review Professional Association.

Related Posts

Internet Law and Your Web Business

Manage Your Business Reputation Online

Over the past few months, I’ve been approached by three clients to make modifications to their WordPress websites. In each case, I found that the sites were built using  WYSIWYG “page builders” as part of their WordPress theme.

The page builders (different on each site) allow the administrator to drag and drop a selection of page components.

The standard WordPress Visual Mode editor is a little cumbersome to use, and adding fancy user interface components often requires arcane shortcodes. On the surface, a WYSIWYG page builder is a big improvement. But there are significant disadvantages that most business owners may not understand.

(1) Site Bloat

One of the biggest issues with elaborate themes, which include page builders and UI components, is that they are very large. Displaying a page may required hundreds of files to be downloaded. Slow sites give a bad user experience, and are penalized by search engines.

(2) Incompatibility

Site builders include a built-in library of UI components. But if you prefer a different component, it can be difficult or impossible to make it work with the site builder. There are over 40,000 WordPress plugins currently available, but a site builder may prevent you from using all but a handful.

(3) Learning Curve

One of the great advantages of WordPress is the fact that it is a de facto standard. There are hundreds of thousands of designers and developers who work with WordPress. But when you base your site on a specific site builder, the typical WordPress designer will need to start from scratch to understand how the theme works – and this may add a lot to your expenses. (Of the three projects I was recently offered, I turned down one because the site builder looked too “non-standard.”)

(4) Lock-in

When you build your site with a page builder, you are tying the future of your site to the developer. If the developer stops making updates, you may well be stuck when problems or incompatibilities show up. You may even need to rebuild your site from scratch!

(5) Software Bugs

In the two page builder projects that I accepted, I quickly found things that did not work as advertised. One of the developers responded quickly to me, and fixed the bugs I found. The other never responded.

Most theme developers are individuals or small companies. Their products may not be well tested, and they may have little or no budget for support and updates.

I would love to see the WordPress team up their game and include a WYGSIWYG page builder in the core WordPress code. But until that happens, I will avoid page-builder themes, and advise my clients to do so as well.

internet-lawWhen people launch websites, they usually think about technology, marketing, and financials, but they rarely give much consideration to potential legal issues… and that can cause serious problems!

In this post, I’m going to discuss a few of the key legal issues affecting websites. I’ll discuss mainly US law, with a few comparisons to other countries. The purpose of this post is to alert you to issues that you should consider.

I am not a lawyer and I am not offering legal advice, so you should discuss these issues with an attorney specializing in Internet law, or cyberlaw. Note that this body of law is made up of specific legislation, as well as precedents set by judges attempting to adapt and apply existing law to the Internet.  As such, it is changing rapidly, and there are many gray areas.


A trademark is a collection of words or symbols that uniquely identifies the source of goods or services. For example, when we talk about Kodak® film, we are identifying the Kodak brand as the source of the film.

In the United States, trademark rights are acquired through using the mark in commerce. Additional rights are secured by registering the mark with the US Patent and Trademark Office, but that is not required. The point here is that there are literally tens of millions of trademarks, registered and unregistered, in use in the US alone. When you launch your website, there is a good chance that you might be conflicting with someone’s trademark.

That’s why, before investing in a domain name and marketing for your brand, you should contact an attorney to conduct a trademark search. You can do a very basic trademark search yourself by using the search feature on the USPTO website, and also using Internet search engines to find unregistered brands. But if you are serious about building your business, you should invest in a professional search, rather than risk a lawsuit just as your site starts to take off.

You should also discuss the merits of registering your trademark, in the US and possibly other countries. (Each country has its own trademark registration process.)


When you create original content for your website, it is automatically protected by copyright law. You can strengthen those rights by registering your copyright with the US Copyright Office, but that is not necessary to secure your basic rights. Unlike trademarks, copyright protection is worldwide; you don’t need to register your copyright in each country.  If you are operating a content-rich website, you should be familiar with the basics of copyright law.  You should also conduct periodic searches for violations, in order to protect your rights.

Bear in mind that copyright protection also protects other websites. Material that you find on the Internet is protected by copyright (with some exceptions that we won’t discuss here). You can’t simply copy someone else’s work because you “found it on the Internet.”

Your website may allow 3rd parties to post content, in the form of a social network, a discussion forum, comments, or ratings and reviews. If a user posts something on your site that violates copyrights, you could be held liable.

You can avoid this liability by complying with the takedown provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Briefly put, you must provide a way for copyright owners to file a takedown request if material on your site violates their copyrights. (You, as the site operator, may contact the party who posted the content to ask if he or she wishes to contest the copyright claim.)

Provided you follow the DMCA process, and remove infringing material from your site, you cannot generally be held liable for damages. Note that this safe harbor protection is not absolute.  For example, if it is determined that your site systematically encourages copyright violation as a core part of its business, then complying with the DMCA will not protect you from liability.

Libel and the Communications Decency Act

In most of the world, if a user commits libel by posting false and damaging allegations on your site, you could be held responsible, and sued or even prosecuted. But in the United States, your site is protected from legal liability by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA).  Section 230 also protects the website from liability for other types of user-posted content… even criminal acts!

However, you could still be sued in another country… perhaps Canada or the United Kingdom, where anti-libel laws are much more stringent, and you are not protected by Section 230. In that case, you may well lose the overseas lawsuit. But when the plaintiff attempts to have the judgment against you enforced in the United States, their claim will be denied. Under the terms of the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage (SPEECH) Act of 2010, foreign libel judgments cannot be enforced unless the suit would also be valid under US law.

Section 230 has been called the most important Internet legislation ever enacted; it has made possibly the proliferation of social networks, discussion sites, review sites, and more. However, the law is under attack.  A number of state attorneys general have petitioned congress to amend the law to exclude certain types of user-supplied posts.

Even under current law, states have tried to hold websites responsible for user-generated content. For example, several states have threatened to prosecute over ads for prostitution posted by users of the site.  Despite the protection of Section 230, Craigslist ultimately bowed to the pressure and blocked the ads for sex services (at least the most blatant ads).

In addition, some judges have ignored Section 230 protections because they simply don’t agree with a law that provides such blanket immunity.

Because of the ongoing pressure, this body of law could change in the future, so it’s important to be aware of the ongoing discussions.

Privacy Policies

Privacy has become a major concern for many people, and as a result legislative bodies are moving quickly to enact privacy protections, in particular for children; see the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Currently some of the most stringent requirements can be found at the state level, notably in California, Connecticut, and Delaware.  Privacy laws in the European Union are general much stronger than those in the US.

Common provisions include:

  • Requirements for a posted privacy policy stating how you track user activity, what information you collect, and how you use and share that information.
  • Limitations on collecting and storing certain information such as social security numbers and credit card numbers.
  • Requirements for parental permission before minors can participate in online communities.
  • Requirements to allow content posted by minors, and data collected from minors, to be deleted from the website.
  • Limitations on good and services that can be marketed or advertised on sites targeting or directed at minors.

In addition to laws, your site may be subject to the policies of partners or services that your site uses.  For example, if your website displays ads from Google Adsense, Google requires that you include specific provisions in your privacy policy.  And requirements for handling and storing credit card information – the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) – are actually dictated by the credit card companies.

There are a number of online services that will generate a privacy policy for your site, based on your inputs.  There are also downloadable templates for privacy policies.  However, because the laws are complex and changing rapidly, it’s worthwhile to consult with an Internet law specialist so that you actually understand how the laws affect your site.

Terms of Use

A website’s Terms of Use agreement may overlap the privacy policy, but often includes other provisions, such as rules of conduct for site members, or legal rights and obligations.

In order to be enforceable, the user must “assent” to the provisions.  Some sites simply present the terms of use and state that, by using the site, the user agrees to the terms (this is called a browsewrap agreement). Other sites require the user to take a positive action, such as clicking a button or checking a box, to indicate that he accepts the terms (a clickwrap agreement).

Although there are legal precedents upholding both browsewrap and clickwrap agreements, courts have been more willing to recognize clickwraps as valid contracts, while showing skepticism about browsewraps.

General Law

In addition to the various special laws affecting websites, Internet businesses are subject to the same general laws as traditional businesses.  Examples include truth in advertising laws, commercial codes, and tax laws.

In other words, when launching a web business, legal issues are as important as technology, marketing, and financial considerations.