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Website operators and owners barely think about the terms and conditions hyperlink, and its destination content, lurking at the bottom of their website. They are, in fact, the essential agreements between you and your users, laying out everyone’s respective duties and rights in the Wild West of the internet.
Unfortunately, these online contracts and terms of engagement are not, realistically speaking, given the same weight or gravitas as their real life counterparts due to the arms-length and removed nature of the online medium which they govern.
This does not make them any less important though, because every single relationship you form with your business, has to have a formal, written legal foundation, and this equally applies to online business operations as brick-and-mortar ones.
Website T&Cs and policies operate exactly as those written legal foundations you would never neglect were you not operating online.
Many online operations fail to consider the legalities and assurances required from an online business, and this is problematic and can put you on the wrong side of either the law, or worse, your online customer.
Let us therefore delve a bit deeper into why those T&Cs are so important, especially in the intangible realm of online business.
Clear terms & conditions bring professional certainty to your site
The sheer remote nature of the internet creates an environment which removes parties from each other, altering many reassuring aspects of regular business engagement.
You and your customer never meet nor discuss the transaction, there is no ability to see actual goods, and you can now buy objects way beyond your usual markets.
To reassert these important elements of your business online, having formalised agreements and comprehensive rules governing the engagement becomes very important. T&Cs on your website do exactly that.
Adhering to the law and your customers’ demands
T&Cs and policies are where legally mandated information and obligations are set out — ensuring that your site operates in accordance with the law and your customers’ desire for reliability.
Using clear and transparent T&Cs and policies satisfies regulators that you are lawful, while users really appreciate clear and fair conditions underpinning their engagement with you.
Your own staff will also take solace in the certainty which succinct and practical T&Cs and policies bring to operations; knowing exactly what has to be done, and when.
Protecting everyone when things go bad online
Things can easily go very wrong with online transactions, and you need all available protections in place in preparation for when a legal fight breaks out.
Your rights, be they intellectual property, indemnities or warranties need to be protected, and so do your users’ and customers’ rights regarding security, consumer
protection, privacy and lawful services.
Having something go wrong online can be substantially worse than its counterpart in reality (think simple wallet theft versus life-changing online ID theft), and T&Cs assist to protect everyone if things do go south quickly.
In order to stay on the right side of unpredictable SA regulators, and your average wary SA online customer, comprehensive website T&Cs and policies ensure that the necessary fences are up to have good neighbours.
They should clearly establish the tenants of your online relationship with users and the mutual rights and obligations of all the parties your business engages with. Without them, you are open to a myriad of problems, which are not as apparent, nor as simple, as one would assume with brick-and-mortar operations.
Thomas Reisenberger is the regulations and compliance lawyer of Legalese, a creative legal agency based in Cape Town.