WHETHER you're about to join the rush of traffic on the information superhighway or have already hit the electronic road, there are legal potholes to watch for as you travel online.
The key problem is that people tend to speak more freely over the Internet than they would face-to-face or in a letter. They don't consider their electronic contact equivalent to other forms of communication. Typically, people simply say what comes to mind and click on "send."
What they may not realize, however, is that anything posted online should be considered permanent, accessible, and potentially discoverable in litigation. Even a message that was deleted can be retrieved by a savvy computer guru.
What You Say May Be Used Against You Be especially careful not to post defamatory statements. While opinions are not actionable, statements containing untrue or malicious information, or statements that injure another's reputation, can be considered defamatory. For example, if asked about a particular property or city, stay clear of responses such as "XYZ Hotel can't be trusted to stick to its sales agreements" or "The manager of Local City CVB runs a shoddy operation." Instead, try to limit statements to facts, such as "XYZ Hotel walked 25 percent of our room nights at our 1997 convention" or "Local City CVB lost 50 out of 500 reservations."
Potential antitrust violations--exceedingly difficult to prove without verifiable information--can become serious threats if documented by electronic communication. Thus, never post messages that would encourage others to boycott a vendor, fix fees, or undertake similar actions that may illegally restrain trade.
In a chat room, it may be difficult to determine who is "in the room," because people may participate without posting messages. Anyone who has access to a chat room or listserv can print out and make a copy of an online discussion or communication and preserve it indefinitely.
Careful, or You'll Have aElectronic communication, like traditional written correspondence, may form a contract with another party. For example, if you have been discussing by telephone the terms under which you might be willing to book a particular property, the hotel sales person may suggest that, to simplify matters, you send an e-mail memorializing your discussions to date. If you send the message and get back a response "accepting the terms," you may have a legally binding agreement--even if that is not what you intended.
Be clear what an e-mail represents (e.g., a contract between the parties or just a summary of discussions to date). And, be certain that the party whose name appears on the screen is really the person with whom you are corresponding. Any online discussions should be confirmed with a hard-copy document containing signatures of the parties authorized to enter into the agreement.
Copyright Clash Because sharing information online is quick and easy, people often pass on interesting articles, stories, or other data. Before forwarding a copy of an article to another person, however, check to make sure that you are free to reproduce and distribute it. If the copyright in the article belongs to someone else, and the copyright owner has not clearly consented to the posting, re-sending the article may violate copyright laws. Just because an article arrived in your electronic mailbox does not necessarily mean that the author or owner granted permission to reproduce or distribute it further.
Similar considerations apply with the use of trade names and logos. If another organization's logo appears on your messages, or if you identify a computer file using the name of a hotel chain, for example, be certain to obtain appropriate consent before using those trademarks.
Taking Care of Business The Internet has opened up new marketing opportunities. But before soliciting business or otherwise advertising online, be certain that the policies of your Internet access provider or listserv sponsor allow it.
Any time you discuss confidential employer or client information, make sure that the communications cannot be accessed by someone to whom they are not directed.
So, choose your words carefully. Re-read and revise messages before you send them. And, if you have any questions, err on the side of caution. Some legal uncertainties still exist about electronic activities, but basic legal principles apply. Be prepared and be aware, and you will reach your electronic destination safely.