Widener University School of Law graduate, Managing Legal Editor at TermsFeed.
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Hosting your legal agreements matters
Current laws require that users can find and read your documents, but also, it needs to be clear to them that the documents are associated with your company.
This not only forces you to consider the location of your documents but also brings up important considerations when drafting them.
Many companies prefer maintaining HTML versions on their website and you would be in good company if you did the same. However, doing so is not a legal requirement.
Other companies often consider using a hosting site like GitHub to store their agreements.
You have these options because complying with requirements depends not on the location of your documents but on how easily your users can access them.
This includes providing a link to these agreements, but also a notification that the user must agree to the terms. Without these elements, your Terms of Service may not be enforceable.
Like the Terms of Service agreements, Privacy Policies must also be accessible to your users.
Therefore, the location of your agreements only matters to the extent your users can find them.
As long as it's clear to your customers where they can find these agreements, where you maintain them is not relevant.
In addition to your agreements being accessible to your users, it also has to be clear that they are relevant to your company and website.
This is an important consideration while drafting your agreements: besides adding your company name into the agreement also consider including the web address and references to your products, including mobile apps.
This helps users know that the policies are designed for your websites and apps.
Gowstuff, an online community devoted to gardening, gives its registered name and the website address for its forums.
The same is recommended for Privacy Policies:
Since its services are offered through a website, app, and purchased products, its agreements cover all of this ground.
How to make your agreements available
Self-hosting the legal agreements on your own website and linking to those agreements is the preferred strategy. When a user clicks on the link, it opens up an HTML version (the web page) of the agreement.
Most websites place these links at the footer of a page, at the bottom of a web page. Most websites choose to host the agreements on their own pages.
This is a strategy adopted by GrowStuff:
Since this is so common, it's likely you'll choose the link format for your company as well.
However, if you offer multiple products and services, and different agreements for them, you likely want to consider a platform that accommodates multiple documents better.
GitHub is a project development platform that facilitates communication and sharing open source technologies.
It has another function which has proven useful to many web and app developers: it can host documents.
Your GitHub must be accessible. This is often also done with links whether it is an "agreements" link that takes users straight to the GitHub page or individual links to GitHub documents.
The links circled here are pages hosted on GitHub rather than on GrowStuff's website:
If your business is especially document-heavy, you may prefer GitHub to multiple links. You can either link to each document or provide a broad "agreements" link that takes users straight to your GitHub page.
You can also take the approach ClassDojo adopts and reference your GitHub pages if you want to show revisions of your agreements:
Formats for legal agreements
Most online businesses give the public access to their legal agreements - Privacy Policies, Terms and Conditions, etc. - by providing a link that takes the user to a web page where the text of the legal agreements can be found and read in an HTML format.
However, some businesses are choosing to provide PDF versions of their legal agreements instead of a simple web page/HTML version.
Is this legal, or must a website only host legal agreements in HTML format?
A mandatory format isn't defined, nor are any formats explicitly forbidden.
The California Online Privacy Protection Act (CalOPPA) only requires that the agreement be posted conspicuously on the website.
"Conspicuously" is defined as either having the agreement itself on the homepage of a website, which is rarely done, or providing a link thatâ€™s formatted to be noticed (capital letters, large font, different color text than the surrounding text,etc.) directly to the agreement's page on the homepage.
No mention is given as to what format the linked agreement must be in. The link technically could lead to a PDF version or an HTML version and still be compliant with CalOPPA law.
Again, no mention is given as to what format the agreement must be in that the link must lead to.
For countries outside of the US, the same rules, or vagueness of, seem to apply.
The Privacy Act of 1988 in Australia makes no mention of specific requirements for the format of Privacy Policies.
The agreement(s) just have to be "understandable and easily available."
There are 8 data protection principles outlined, however they do not provide a clear template for how to comply with the principles through legal agreements. General terms such as "fair", "appropriate" and "adequate" are used.
With such vague language, it can be argued that the only true requirement across the board when it comes to posting legal agreements apply to the way the agreements are linked, and the content that's contained in the agreement itself.
There are no real requirements regarding the format (HTML or .PDF or even another format) that the agreements must be in, so long as they are easily available and accessible.
The question now is: Is the PDF format truly as easily available and accessible as HTML is?
The argument can be made that HTML is far more easily accessible to users as every computer will be able to quickly open the legal agreements links and present the agreements in a new web page in HTML format.
Mobile devices will also have no issue here because mobile devices and their operating systems have built-in PDF readers.
For a PDF-formatted agreement to be read on a computer, the user will have to have some version of Adobe Reader or other PDF reader software installed on his computer.
While downloading and installing a PDF reader software can be done quickly and for free, it is one extra step that may complicate things for some users. This may sway the argument towards the side that says HTML is the better, more easily accessible format to present legal agreements in versus PDF.
However, either method is legally acceptable, considered easily accessible enough to meet legal guidelines, and both formats are widely used.
Here are a number of different websites that put their legal agreements in the PDF format, as well as some that stick with HTML format instead.
Legal agreements in HTML format
DHL provides an HTML version of its main legal agreements, all accessible from one main page with convenient top tabs to switch between the Masthead, the Terms and Conditions, and the Privacy & Cookies policy.
This is definitely a more convenient setup for users to navigate and view all documents in, rather than needing to open a dozen different PDF files for each different policy or notice.
Legal agreements in PDF format
AMP, an Australian-based bank, provides typical footer links to its legal agreements.
When a user clicks on its Terms & Conditions link, the text of the agreement is presented in HTML on a separate webpage.
The option to download the document and conveniently save it locally on a computer does add a perk to the use of PDF format over the HTML format, but accessing HTML pages for reference is just as easy and convenient in most cases and for most people's needs.
Crashlytics also provides standard footer links for its legal agreements. Note the "(new)" notation next to each link that conveniently lets users know right away that there have been updates to the agreements. This is a nice touch that lets users know to look for updates.
The ShareASale website provides 2 legal agreements in the informational footer of the site, both in PDF format.
However, there are other policies on the NIH website that are in PDF format, such as the "Rules and Regulations for Peer Reviewing".
More specific, specialized policies, rules, and regulations that don't apply generally to everyone who visits or uses the website or NIH's services are more likely to be in the PDF format.
However, the "General Policies and Personnel Policies" pages are a mix of HTML and PDF.
While there are no explicit requirements in any law or act that call for a website to present legal agreements in one format or another (HTML or PDF, for example), there are requirements that these agreements be easily accessible to users.
HTML does seem to be more convenient and accessible for all users, as HTML capabilities are automatically built into every web browser and mobile device.
However, with the wide use of PDF readers, and mobile devices' capabilities to read these files automatically, either format is widely used and widely viewed as acceptable as well as legally and socially adequate.
Consider the following:
If your website server is normally reliable, it's likely a safe place to keep your essential agreements available to your users. There are companies that maintain documents on their websites and on a hosting service like GitHub as a backup method.
Number of agreements.
Kidizen and ClassDojo have multiple products and services but do not need separate agreements for each. Therefore, using links works well.
However, if your products are different and require unique agreements, you may want to find a better way to maintain them to avoid clutter.
If your agreements are easily located by your users, it will not matter where you host them.