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The Pitfalls of User Generated Content

Published on February 24, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law

Over the last decade, the internet has increased its depth and influence to an extent that was hard to predict. It has developed in many ways, with lots of different forms of media reflected in its content. One area that has increased massively over the past few years is user generated content. An increasingly popular means of engagement with the web, what exactly is it and what issues does it raise?

Simply put, user generated content is exactly what it says it is – online content written or created by the users of websites rather than website developers or site owners. This can include everything from forums and blog posts to videos, images and articles, depending on the website. Two of the most obvious examples of websites that thrive because of their user generated content are YouTube and Wikipedia, where users can upload videos and articles to the respective sites. There are also thousands of blog sites, forums on all manner of topics, online image galleries and more, all of which provide an opportunity for web users to engage with the websites through producing their own content. Often this is done in a small way, such as through commenting on blog posts, but others create whole enterprising operations out of their actions.

On the face of it, the growth of user generated content is an extremely positive development. It allows people to be more involved with the happenings of the internet and their favourite websites in particular. This helps to contribute to the free and open nature of the World Wide Web, providing ordinary users with a platform through which they can share their knowledge and interests, interact with other people in the same space and open up new ways of networking. 

One of the most successful web inventions – social media – largely rests on user generated content. Without it, the Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn sites would largely be just shells. They need content to fill them and make them successful. This comes from the website users, who set up accounts and engage with the services. This has led to people networking with others across the world and has also given rise to a new form of protest movement and means of organisation for demonstrators, as well as a whole host of other uses. Other websites such as YouTube are beneficial because they not only allow user generated content to flourish, but they can also be integrated into or linked to from company websites, giving businesses alternative means of advertising and interacting with their customers. 

Despite these positives, user generated content is not without its pitfalls. For example, there is the question of quality. When people write their own content, there are no rules governing standards of accuracy, so even though they might put their all into it, there is no guarantee it will be watertight. Probably the best example of this is Wikipedia, which occasionally finds itself in the press for one sensationalist false article or another. While it may not be such a worrying issue in the case of Wikipedia, review sites such as TripAdvisor have come under fire as users have posted false reviews in order to make businesses appear worse than they are. When user generated content has the potential to damage companies’ reputations, it shows there is something of a problem emerging.

There is also the issue of copyright, which most often emerges in the context of visual content. For example, some users of YouTube and other video streaming sites upload clips of their favourite TV shows for others to view or songs by their favourite artists for people to listen to. This can lead to something of a quandary as the rules of copyright in such cases aren’t always clear. While some industry experts are happy for their products to be viewed on such websites, others aren’t and have been known to take action to have it removed for copyright reasons. Copyright law is complicated in itself, too, so even if a user thinks they are acting perfectly legitimately in uploading content to a website, they may be accidentally in breach of the law because the product is still under some form of copyright or distribution limitation.

When copyright is breached, the course of action is generally to remove the offending content from the site in question. This is what happened when Comedy Central asked YouTube to remove all clips of The Daily Show from the site. Other companies, such as the BBC, try to control the amount of user generated content on the internet by uploading their own official versions. Occasionally, though, infringements can lead to prosecution if a company or individual feels their privacy has been breached or copyright broken. When users largely upload content because they’re interested in a topic or simply want to share opinions with other people, they are often not aware of the laws surrounding such things and can find themselves being prosecuted for any number of activities.

There is clearly a question here of intent: if someone uploads something to a website that deliberately breaks a law – whatever it may be – then there is a case for action. Otherwise, it must surely be something of a legal grey area. If people accidentally make mistakes and are not aware they have broken the law, it is much harder to know how to deal with it. This is especially true when you consider one of the main purposes of user generated content is for entertainment and not done with any enterprising intention. The location of the infringement can also play a part, with copyright law not being harmonious around the globe. For example, the process for prosecution of copyright infringement is completely different to that of the UK.

Overall, then, this is something of a murky issue. On the one hand, copyright, libel and other laws must be upheld in order to protect businesses, artists, individuals and others. On the other hand, people have a right to generate their own content and contribute to the ongoing development of the internet. If nothing else, it’s fairly safe to say that this is an issue that is only going to grow in significance over time and may require a global approach in order to provide clear guidelines and solutions.

By Chelsey Evans

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Making False Claims on your Web Site Can Lead to Fines and Penalties

Published on February 21, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law

From 1 March 2011, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has new powers over UK company web sites and online marketing material. This article explains more about how a change in the powers of the ASA might affect your organisation's online strategy.

Under current advertising laws, the Advertising Standards Agency can only monitor and take action over traditional forms of advertising. This includes billboards and adverts on television, as well as advertising in newspapers. Until now, however, it couldn't monitor the content of company websites.

These rules are changing on 1st March 2011, giving the ASA the power to pass judgement on company websites and other online commercial promotion. This means that consumers will be able to complain to ASA if they feel a website features indecent, misleading or false content. The upshot of this is that the ASA will have the power to force companies to pay fines and change the content of their websites if they are found to be in breach of the rules, even if the content in question is not in the form of a traditional online advert.

Therefore, while the current law allows companies to show adverts on their websites that it wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast on television, from March 1st all of this will change. So what does this mean for companies who rely on their websites for business? What will be the impact of the new rules?

On the one hand, it could be argued that this is a positive shift for consumers. It means that all claims made on company websites will have to be true, or else they would have grounds to make a complaint. This helps to protect consumers’ rights and promote quality of service. It also might mean that companies make more of an effort to keep their websites up to date – such as by not relying on old surveys or out of date endorsements to promote themselves – which will be good for both web users and the companies themselves.

On the other hand, it potentially creates the potential for companies to land themselves in hot water despite their best efforts. After all, two different companies in the same industry could both easily proclaim themselves to have "the best customer service in the business" because different customer surveys – even if conducted at the same time – could produce different results, but it would still look suspicious to have dual claims and might lead to complaints.

The new ASA monitoring powers also apply to any other web software that may be controlled by a company. So, for example, if they have a blog, social networking account (Facebook page, Twitter account, LinkedIn company page, etc.) or paid search advertisements (Google AdWords, etc.), these will still be subject to the new scrutiny rules. There is a distinction made between marketing and editorial content (only marketing communication falls under the new rules), but often the line can be blurred on websites and so companies may prefer to be cautious rather than risk the wrath of customer complaints.

This opens up the possibility that many websites are going to have to be restructured and re-written in order to ensure compliance with the new ASA rules and to be on the safe side when making marketing claims. All of this opens up a window of opportunity for copywriters, who are likely to receive requests to help companies redevelop the content of their websites once the new rules come into effect.

As well as web content and marketing communications, there is also the potential that other aspects of companies’ online profiles will have to be restructured, providing another opportunity for copywriters. For example, many online businesses take steps to improve their Google rankings through search engine optimisation. This might include profiling ‘recommended links’ on a piece of editorial content, writing a blog post tailored around a certain key phrase or product, or perhaps posting sponsored tweets on Twitter. While these may not be directly construed as marketing in the traditional sense, the new ASA powers make the world of SEO far harder to navigate, as it opens up the question of what counts as marketing and what, for example, counts as opinion or editorial copy. With many companies outsourcing their SEO efforts too, it may require the company to take a much closer role in what the outsource company is posting online on their behalf. And, with many SEO outsource suppliers being based outside the UK it might be that the knowledge and experience isn't available to them to provide the level of service needed to protect the company.

Officially, if an individual posts a comment on a website remarking on a product or service they have received, this does not fall under the jurisdiction of ASA. If a company then uses that comment in its online marketing material, though, it will fall under the jurisdiction. This makes the practice of checking websites for truth and honesty more important than ever before. Another example would be product pages advertising a particular item or service. If a company was selling an action figure, for example, but the picture promoting the toy on their website showed the action figure surrounded by a larger play set that wasn’t actually included in the price, then someone might complain that it constitutes false advertising and an investigation might be conducted as a result.

This could prove to be a window of opportunity for web content writers with the skill to write good copy and the ability to check that what they are writing is all factually correct. Having a good copywriter to take care of things also allows the company to get on with business without having to worry that they might be fined for false advertising.

Of course, ASA won’t be proactively searching the web for breaches of its rules; the whole thing depends on consumers raising issues as they come across them so it’s possible the real impact of the new rules will be minimal. Last year, 2500 complaints were made to ASA about web content but they couldn’t be investigated because the powers didn’t exist. There is no way of telling whether any more complaints than this will be made once web content does fall under the ASA remit or whether it will stay roughly the same. However, from March 1st the potential will be there for false or misleading claims to be investigated and so ultimately, it’s much better to be safe than sorry and take steps to ensure company websites are entirely truthful, both in their marketing and editorial content.

More information is available directly from the ASA web site at www.asa.org.uk.

Alternatively, if you are concerned about the impact of the new ASA regulations on your web site, and perhaps do not have the time or experience to review your site or marketing yourself, contact us today to arrange a consultation.

By Chelsey Evans

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Does the Internet Bring Us Closer Together?

Published on February 14, 2011
Tags: Internet Communication

Whatever your views on the internet, there is no doubt that its influence is ever-growing and that more and more people are using it as time goes by – there are currently over 1.6 billion users of the World Wide Web. As internet use increases, there is a growing debate about whether or not it actually helps to bring people closer together. Certainly when web designers create websites, it is often for companies who are looking to reach out to their customers and keep them up to date with what their business is working on, suggesting the intention to bring people closer together is there in theory. So does this actually work, or does the internet only serve to isolate us?

The Internet brings us closer together

Probably the best argument in favour of the internet bringing people closer together is the fact it is a global phenomenon. People from all over the world are online, sharing content and using the same websites. This gives both individuals and businesses more opportunities than ever before to extend their networks and reach out to people they may otherwise never meet.

This is best seen in the growth of social networks, which are massively popular. Facebook is probably the best example of this, which has over 500 million active users and is still growing. People often use the website to connect with friends and contacts, such as people they knew at school but have since lost touch with. Seen in this manner, the internet does bring us closer together as it offers a platform through which people can interact not just with people they know, but with people in other countries.

Businesses and web designers have obviously noticed this trend, too. Facebook’s own statistics suggest that over 10,000 new websites integrate with the Facebook site every day. This suggests that there is massive potential for interaction on an online platform and for smaller websites to benefit from the success of larger ones, thereby connecting different groups from different industries through a central hub.

This can also be seen in the recent predilection for organising grassroots campaigns through the internet. It is widely thought, for example, that without planning through the social media and the wider internet, Barack Obama would have found it much harder to mobilise the grassroots voters in the US who ultimately helped him reach the White House. We can also see it in the UK, where mass campaigns have been organised online by a variety of groups. For example, UK Uncut have arranged tax avoidance protests, 38 Degrees and others are campaigning to save the forests and UKpling are working to organise an online campaign to save the libraries. We can easily argue that, without the internet, all the people involved in these campaigns would not have been bought together.

The Internet doesn’t bring us closer together

Of course, every argument has a counter argument and this debate is no different. Many people have argued that even though there has been tremendous growth in communicative technology – most notably those platforms operated through the World Wide Web – it has actually had the effect of driving people further apart.

This can perhaps be best seen through the idea that although people are now more able to get in touch with others than ever before, the quality of communication you experience with someone through a social networking site will never be of the same standard as if you were talking face to face.

There is some merit in this – when you consider that many people who work in the same office now frequently email each other instead of going to speak to each other directly, you can see how the internet can end up isolating people.

There are also arguments to be made about internet governance; as a global entity outside of effective international legislative control, there are very few laws to regulate the internet and its operations. Of course, there is an argument to be made that this is a good thing, as it means people have a space in which to interact away from their everyday lives. However, when you consider that some websites are blocked in countries such as China, North Korea massively restricts internet use and the Egyptian government recently switched off the internet in an attempt to control protestors, it can also be argued that there is a power to be found in controlling the internet and that those who are not online are isolated from those who are through the denial of communication. Therefore, even if the internet works to bring its users closer together, it pushes those who aren’t online further towards the margins.


Both sides of this debate have merit and they are, of course, much more complex once you get further into them. Perhaps, though, this is the point – on the surface of it, the online world is a brilliant opportunity for global connections to be made and it offers users the chance to experience different lives and cultures by proxy. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Google and many more provide portals of communication that are unrivalled in human history.

However, as the internet grows and becomes more influential, as governments move many public services online and campaigns are organised through social networking sites rather than the town hall, it suggests that those who aren’t part of the phenomena are indeed more isolated than others. This suggests that there is still work to be done to make the internet a truly connective, interactive platform and that the debate isn’t over, not by a long way.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Why not complete the comments box below to let us know and we'll publish your thoughts here.

By Chelsey Evans

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The Increasing Challenges of Internet Security

Published on February 11, 2011
Tags: Internet Security

In January 2011, the OECD released a report arguing that much of the current rhetoric and poor analysis about cyber warfare is unhelpful in the pursuit of governments to plan for increased cyber protection.

Internet security has been an issue almost as long as the internet itself has been in existence and it has added new dimensions to the types of crimes perpetrated today. Without adequate security, it is all too easy for hackers or other malicious types to send viruses out into the ether to infect the computers of ordinary web users, break into online databases to steal information, spy on people’s computers to find out their secret information and a whole range of other web-based crimes.

This means that one of the longest running challenges for web designers, software developers and code writers has been to develop systems that can stand up malicious attempts to access them and keep the details of all web users safe. This doesn’t always work: there are thousands of viruses and Trojan horses that infect people’s machines on a daily basis. There is, however, an increasingly good range of internet security packages available for common web users to install in order to protect themselves against all known viruses, with databases that are regularly updated as new threats are identified.

Hacking is another issue that needs to be considered when websites are designed as this can lead to the loss of important data and the effective crippling of online businesses. A couple of recent examples demonstrate this well: in January 2011, the retailer Lush reported that many of its online customers’ data was at risk due to security problems. On a larger scale, the ‘hacktivist’ group called ‘Anonymous’ targeted certain websites following the WikiLeaks scandal for cutting off funding to the organisation.

These are the sorts of challenges that web designers can and do work to avoid, but what of the larger issue of cyber warfare? This is what the report from the OECD was about, arguing that lumping together computer viruses and relatively small time hacking incidents under the banner of cyber warfare doesn’t help in the fight against the much bigger issue at stake, one that can’t simply be solved through good web design. This is a growing concern as an extensive, coordinated cyber attack would not only easily get through even the best of defences installed by internet security specialists and web designers, but could also take down the entire infrastructure of a country. As recently as September 2010, Iran reported that its nuclear reactor had been infected with the Stuxnet virus and, while no serious damage was done, it shows the potential magnitude such attacks could have. The really frightening thing is that it’s possible for such viruses to be sent to similar locations or to disable key equipment such as fighter planes completely anonymously.

This potential for disaster in such key parts of countries’ infrastructures is a particularly large problem as many of the services cyber attacks would target are in the private sector (such as communications, energy, food, finance, transport and water) and so taking a ‘military’ approach to the problem wouldn’t be able to solve it. This, plus the fact that it’s often extremely hard to work out who has launched such an attack, means that it’s even more vital recovery systems are created so the infrastructure could recover.

It is for reasons such as this that the British Government is currently investing a lot of money in cyber security - £650m to be precise. It’s clear that the government sees it as a priority issue – they’ve also ranked cyber attacks as ‘Tier 1’ threats, along with terrorism, conventional warfare and natural disasters – and are massively upgrading the country’s capabilities to deal with cyber attack.

As well as a role for governments in upgrading online security, there’s also a growing role for what are known as ‘ethical hackers’. These are people with the skills to hack into heavily secured internet systems, databases and company accounts. The purpose is for them to work out where the weaknesses are in the system, so that they can be dealt with properly before a less ethical hacker works out how to exploit them. The thinking here is that it’s much better to have the hackers on the side of the nation, defending its interests, than it is to have them tempted by terrorist exploits.

One of the best, most popular and defining features of the online world as been the fact that it is so free and democratic. With the ever growing threat of cyber terrorism, virus attacks and new malware being developed with astonishing regularity and precision, let’s hope it’s not also the thing that turns out to be its biggest weakness. There is a growing awareness of and action on the issue, though, so even as we become increasingly dependent on the internet in our everyday lives, there is still much that can be done by all of those who work in online services to help protect infrastructure and individuals against cyber attack.

By Chelsey Evans

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