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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Business Users and Identification - "Impressumspflicht" in Social Networks - German Law and Overall Ethics

In the context of building a sewing website, there are legal considerations that can and should not be taken lightly. In particular, when that website is run from Germany - which appears to have a comparatively strict jurisdiction and formal requirements.

After researching on legal requirements of doing business in Germany, I found that any website or social media profile run by a business must have an "Impressum" (site notice) that discloses who or what entity is running a site or social media profile. That goes for companies (or individual entrepreneurs) that offer services or goods to Germans as well as companies (or entrepreneurs) who reside in Germany.

As a German site owner who offers a platform where business owners can register and interact with non-business-owners, it is in my interest to make sure this is a safe place - for both involved groups (business and non-business). In order to encourage people who have to to obey the German law, I need to offer a place on your user profile where you can place an "Impressum".

An "Impressum" in the German legal sense contains, e.g., the VAT identification number, legal entity, CEO (if applicable), contact details, information about registration status at commercial registers.

Ok, so I added a funny field called "Business Identification" to people's profiles. It provides a space where you can fill in details about your business. What are the consequences? Actually, what the consequences are is something I'd like to discuss with you.

I'm currently working on figuring out what the terms of use of the site should say. I could set up terms of use in such a way that everyone who uses a profile to further their business needs to fill in the "business identification" field. Having this as a mandatory requirement in the terms of use would provide the greatest legal security for myself, since, any violation of "Impressumspflicht" (the legal obligation to have a site notice that complies with German jurisdiction) filed by a German competitor would involve a violation of the terms of use by the offending profile owner.

Legally, that means that if a German competitor would find a violation of "Impressumspflicht" by a profile on the site, they would need to take legal action against that profile and not against me as the person who just runs the site. But for that to work, I need to set up terms of use (and enforce them) in such a way that it is clear that I do not condone violations of "Impressumspflicht".

Personally, I do think that it is actually good to know who is running a business because it helps build trust. However, there are also disadvantages. I'm not sure I'm totally comfortable with sharing my business address (which is also my personal address) with all of the world - yet I'm doing it because I'm legally required to provide an address and because I'm too resourceful to see the point in renting an office. I'm all for letting people know that something is a business and giving them the relevant business details, though.

Business owners from other countries might not be legally required to share their address - and they might not be comfortable at all with doing so. Still, from what I understand different countries may have different requirements regarding the information that a business must disclose when it shows up on the Internet. As long as these non-German business owners do not target German customers, however, there seems to be no violation of "Impressumspflicht".

The actual probability for a non-German business to get sued by a German competitor for violating "Impressumspflicht" seems to be close to zero as long as you don't advertise and sell in German (i.e. you are not targeting German customers directly). If you, however, do target German customers, court rulings in Germany suggest that I as a site operator need to take measures to educate you regarding your responsibilities and risks - for the safety of both of us.

For legal reasons, I have to make expressly clear now that this is just a personal reflection on what I read on the internet. What I wrote is not to be taken as legal advice. I am not a lawyer.

What I need regarding this is your opinion.

  • Do you think it makes sense for business owners to be required to be upfront about their business details? 
  • If not, why?

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