by Jay Shelton | January 01, 2017

For associations, the internet is an indispensable resource for attracting members, sponsors, volunteers and employees. However, it can also serve as the source of problems when staff abuse it for excessive personal use or, worse, engage in inappropriate online behavior. For these two reasons alone, it’s essential to have an enforceable usage policy so that your organization avoids liability. Create a clear, specific policy that details what is and is not permitted and make sure it is widely communicated and consistently enforced. Policies might touch upon anything from discriminatory acts and fraud to employer rights and sharing confidential information.

Understanding the risks. If your association owns the computers its employees work on, it can be held liable for any illegal or discriminatory content employees view or distribute on those computers. For example, sexual harassment can result from an employee sending inappropriate emails to another on company computers, and a staff member who views pornography or content that promotes hate and discrimination could set off all kinds of legal problems. It’s important to note that even if an individual does not distribute inappropriate content, an employee who walks by and takes offense with the content being viewed could go as far as suing the association for being subjected to a hostile work environment.

Another liability is any computer activity that involves, or leads to, illegal activity. This can include accessing illegal information, participating in illegal activities online or using information found online to commit a crime. In any of these cases, even if an employer was unaware of the inappropriate or illegal activity, the organization where such activity was conducted can be held liable for negligent supervision of employees. Legally, any content stored on a company computer is considered the possession of both employees and employers.

Accessing unauthorized web pages can also pose risks to an association’s computers or network. Just one click of the mouse can expose a computer to a destructive virus or allow a hacker to access sensitive company information. This is often referred to as cyber liability.

Maintaining an accessible website. In addition to understanding the potential risks associated with computer use and effectuating clear policies about what is permitted, associations should also maintain a website that is up to date from a technical and legal standpoint.

While it is common practice for companies to evaluate their website vulnerability based on cyber exposures, fewer resources are available to ensure website accessibility, which addresses those with temporary or permanent disabilities. The issue of website accessibility has gained momentum in recent years after actions were taken against two universities for failure to provide content considered to be accessible to the disabled (specifically for their failure to caption videos).

As a result of this, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) stated it would “explore whether rulemaking would be helpful in providing guidance as to how covered entities could meet their pre-existing obligations to make their websites accessible.” This was a change from the guidance provided by the DOJ in their Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in 2010, which claimed that as long as an entity provided an equal degree of access using an alternative method, this was acceptable. While the DOJ has not published rules for website accessibility, it is currently in the process of gathering feedback. It is definitely a hot topic and one that will apply to all kinds of organizations.

When evaluating your association’s website, some key components that should be considered include website compatibility with assistive technology; non-text content, available as a text alternative; the ability to request information in alternative format; proper description of sensory items in order to provide equal interpretation of content; font and contrast considerations; accessibility through keyboard functionality; and the option to extend or eliminate the time of content displayed.

Ensuring that your website and policies take into consideration all kinds of people is, ultimately, what these precautions address. Safety, professionalism, decorum and open-minded views are all connected to potential causes of liability. So when it comes to avoiding liability issues, lawsuits or public-relations disasters, being proactive is the best defense.