Webmaster cites Web site disclaimer

I've noticed that as agencies add disclaimers to their Web sites, some are quite extensive; only a few are brief.

Attempting to craft an appropriate disclaimer, I reviewed what other agencies have included. After compiling information, I edited it to a two-paragraph, 100-word document that contained the usual items about no warranties, fitness for a particular purpose, assumption of no legal liability relating to a whole host of things, a hold-harmless clause and an adjudication location.

The document seemed heavily tilted toward legal subjects, so I thought it prudent to have the disclaimer reviewed by the General Counsel's office.

The reply noted that all references to warranties should be deleted. Warranties apply to the sale of goods by a merchant. But there is no sale of goods in connection with accessing a Web site or downloading information. Documents only convey information to the reader. That took care of paragraph one.

The section of the second paragraph in which the disclaimer binds the user, simply by accessing the Web site, to indemnify the United States was termed "a bit of a stretch" and not advisable to include on a U.S. government Web site. The clause could deter the public from accessing the site and would likely have no force or effect. It should be deleted, the General Counsel's office said. That substantially reduced the size of paragraph two. The disclaimer was getting streamlined.

Further, the letter cautioned, there is no guarantee that the disclaimer would act as blanket protection from civil action or liability. Not being convinced of the necessity for or the efficacy of such a disclaimer, there was no particular objection to including one on the Web site, stated the letter. So much for the remainder of paragraph two. My disclaimer was streamlined right out of existence.

But, if I was determined to add a disclaimer to the Web site, the General Counsel's office suggested the following language. This disclaimer appears in full on the Agriculture Department's welcome page at www.usda.gov/welcome.html. Adapt it as it fits your agency. Fill in your department, agency or appropriate information in the brackets.

Web site disclaimer

Effort has been made to provide accurate and complete information. However, we cannot guarantee that there will be no errors. Neither the U.S. government, [the department] nor [affiliated organizations] assumes any legal liability for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, product, or process disclosed herein, or represents that use of such information, product, or process would not infringe on privately owned rights.

The [department's] Web site contains links to other federal and state agencies and private organizaions. These links are maintained solely for the user's information and convenience. Once you link to another site, please be aware that you are subject to the policies of the new site. In addition, please note that [the department] does not control and cannot guarantee the relevance, timeliness, or accuracy of the outside materials. Further, the inclusion of links or pointers to particular items in hypertext is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to constitute approval or endorsement of any views expressed, or products or services offered, on these outside Web sites, or the organizations sponsoring the Web sites.

—Powell is the Agriculture Department's Internet and intranet Webmaster.

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