Big Brother is watching you – or at least your website. An overlapping array of legislation governs the identity information which a company has to provide on its websites, and there are fines for non-compliance. Test your compliance levels with Carla Basso’s report.
Who: The Office of Public Sector Information ("OPSI")
Where: The Companies Act 2006: the Companies (Trading Disclosures) Regulations 2008
When: 29 February 2008
Law stated as at: 7 April 2008
OPSI recently published the Companies (Trading Disclosures) Regulations 2008 (the "Regulations"), which come into force on 1 October 2008. The Regulations set out the requirements on trading disclosures which are to be made by companies registered in the UK. These relate mainly to how and where its registered name and other details have to be displayed.
The disclosures apply to certain locations, company documentation and company websites, and any display or disclosure of information must be "in characters that can be read with the naked eye". For example:
- A company should display its registered name at its registered office, and at any location other than its registered office at which it carries on business. The name must be positioned so that it may be easily seen by visitors, and (unless the office is shared by six or more companies) it must be displayed continuously.
- The registered name must be disclosed on a wide variety of commercial communications such as business letters, official publications, notices, cheques, invoices and similar materials.
Every company must also disclose its registered name on its websites. In addition, further information must be disclosed on websites, namely:
- the part of the UK in which the company is registered;
- the company's registered number
- the company's registered office address;
- the fact that it's a limited company, if it is one which is exempt from the obligation to use the word "limited" as part of its company name;
- the fact that it's a limited company, if it's a community interest company which is not a public company;
- in the case of an investment company, the fact that it is such a company; and
- if it's a company with a share capital, there must be a disclosure as to the amount of the paid up share capital.
Failure to comply with these requirements "without reasonable excuse" is an offence by the company and every defaulting officer, leading to fines.
Web sweep findings timely
With timely coincidence, on 7th March 2008 the OFT published the findings of its "web sweep", which was conducted in December 2007 by Trading Standard's officers in 90 authorities, of 530 top retail websites, to see if they were complying with the key requirements of the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 and The Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002.
Where the Distance Selling Regulations apply (loosely, where a supplier and consumer conclude contracts at a distance) then prior to concluding a contract businesses must provide details of their identity and address as well as detailed product information and information on issues such as cancellation rights. The information must be provided in a clear and comprehensible manner appropriate to the means of distance communication used. This has to be followed up with similar information in "writing or in another durable medium", and that communication should include the geographical address of the place of business of the supplier to which the consumer can address complaints.
Where the E-commerce Regulations apply (loosely, where a service is provided for remuneration at a distance by electronic means) e-tailers are to provide "in a form and manner which is easily, directly and permanently accessible, a list of details which include the name of the service provider, their geographic address, and their email address.
The results of the "web sweep" suggested that most of the large UK on-line retailers scrutinized were in fact complying with the main consumer protection regulations set out in these EU-originated regulations. Nevertheless 14% of the sites didn't comply with the information requirements by failing to provide any physical address on the site, or only providing a PO Box number, and at least 20% of the sites didn't provide any contact email address.
Why this matters:
There seem to be an increasing number of legal requirements for companies to identify themselves to their virtual consumers – all well and good, since consumers need to know who they are dealing with when they spend their hard earned cash on line. However, the results indicate that some companies are failing to comply – either because they are ignorant of the rules, or perhaps confused by the variety of them: 28% of on-line retailers surveyed by the OFT report said they were "unaware or only slightly aware of the laws applying to internet shopping" and 67% had "never sought advice on them".
The fact is that if more than one, or all, of these regulations apply to a company, then it needs to comply with all applicable rules accordingly, or face the relevant penalties. And the "web sweep" shows that those with the ability to impose those penalties are watching… time for a little spring housekeeping perhaps?