I’m pleased to report that the wraps are off: The IT Donut, a new website for small businesses, will be launching the week of 23 August.
Expect heaps of advice about choosing, using and generally not getting totally frustrated with IT in your business.
I’ve taken on the role of editor (the next few months are looking to be very busy), but thankfully there’s a whole team of great people from BHP Information Solutions working hard on the site too. And because you can’t substitute for first-hand knowledge and experience, we’re on the hunt for experts who know all about IT at the sharp end of business.
You see, when businesses use IT, there’s an ideal world, and there’s what actually happens. The two often differ quite considerably.
The IT Donut isn’t going to live in the plain sailing, smooth running and largely theoretical ideal world. It will acknowledge the situations and challenges businesses face every day with their IT.
Although the team behind the website is packed with experience (I’ve been writing about small businesses and IT for years now), we need people who’ve been there and done it to help us cover every area. These IT experts are the people who’ll really bring the site to life.
So if you know a bit about IT in business, I want to hear from you. You might be an expert in web hosting, networking or accounting software. Or you might be a business that’s experimented with cloud computing, open source software – or gained some other knowledge that you’d like to share.
Whatever your expertise, give me a shout. It’s your chance to be involved in one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on – and to get some great PR while you’re at it.
There was a big fuss about the Digital Economy Bill when it was rushed through Parliament in a two-hour session last month. But now that it’s been enacted, what will its implications for business be? asks David Impey.
It’s becoming clearer which businesses could be affected, what the main risks are and how you can reduce them, so let’s try to put this new law into perspective.
Crucially, the act — or #debill as it’s still referred to in generally hostile online comment — gives the government power to protect copyright owners against online breaches of their copyright.
For example, if it can be shown that a website has been or is likely to be used “for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright”, then under the new act the government can get a court order telling the ISP (internet service provider) hosting the website to block access to it.
What’s covered by copyright? Words, images, podcasts, videos, music, tables, databases, diagrams, photographs — the list goes on and on and on…
You don’t even have to publish copyright material to your website to potentially fall foul of #debill. If you — or anyone using your computer or network — can be shown to have repeatedly infringed copyright (for example, by downloading copyright-protected music or videos), then your ISP may be required to suspend your Internet connection.
What risks does the Digital Economy Act present?
“That certainly sounds scary,” you might say, “but it doesn’t affect me.” Well, you may know that you never breach copyright online, and you may think you know that no-one else on your website or Internet connection is doing so. So where’s the risk? Well, here are three possibilities.
First, just how sure are you that no-one else is breaching copyright? If you share your web connection with another business or even with partners or colleagues, there’s a risk. If you work from home and your kids also use your computer, there’s a risk.
Second, if your business provides an Internet connection for your customers to use (such as a free wi-fi network), you’re the one who could end up in trouble if the connection is used to infringe someone else’s copyright, even if you knew nothing about it.
Third, if you allow user-generated content on your site, you need to consider the chances of copyright material belonging to someone else being posted on your site by someone else.
Safeguards for small businesses
Now, to be fair to the act it’s not the case at all that every business that finds itself in a scenario like the three above would see their website or Internet connection blocked under the new law.
For one thing, it’s not clear yet how widely the new law will be interpreted. And in any event there are safeguards in place. For example, before suspending a subscriber’s Internet connection, their ISP would be required to notify the subscriber about the infringement that has taken place and tell them what they can do to stop it continuing.
So in practice, the Digital Economy Act, as it’s now called, may not be a pressing issue for a large majority of UK businesses. But in sectors with a core online focus, it will have made the regulatory environment more uncertain than it was a month ago. And that’s not just bad for businesses that are already operating — just as important is the potential disincentive effect it might have on innovative start-ups.
More on IT law and intellectual property
I read recently that Portsmouth FC manager Avram Grant expects to have his first-choice team available in the FA Cup final after his key players indicated a willingness to waive the lucrative bonuses in their contracts.
To stunned audiences nationwide, Portsmouth thrashed Spurs recently and will play the Wembley final on May 15. The players’ bonuses were contracted to kick in if/when the Club reached the final.
But Portsmouth is in financial turmoil – it went into administration in February with, apparently, debts of £70 million. This leads me to wonder why the club would even offer players contracts that offer cash payments ranging from £50,000 to £100,000 in the first place.
Perhaps the club felt they needed to offer bonuses to lure top class-players away from the glittery clubs and expensive shops in London. Or maybe Portsmouth didn’t really expect to get so far in the FA Cup and were confident that the bonus clauses were good window-dressing that they’d never have to pay out. Whatever the Club’s reasoning, it’s a strategy that has backfired, and put them under even more money pressure.
This should be a warning to small businesses suffering their own money troubles. Employee perks and bonuses can be an effective way of attracting and retaining employees, eventually improving business results. But cash payouts, as well as the most common incentives, such as company cars, season-ticket loans and gym membership, can prove costly.
If you’re struggling, remember that before offering remuneration packages you should take into account how appealing any bonuses will be to potential employees – and also much it costs to provide, then administer them.
If your firm still has incentives to fulfill under your employment contracts, you may have to rethink. Negotiating discounts with local suppliers is a clever way for businesses to continue to provide great employee benefits – for example, you could negotiate a group-rate gym membership with a local firm. Small firms should also consider offering low- or no-cost opportunities such as flexible working, which employees may value more than a pricy perk.
However, don’t be too mean - it’s essential for small businesses to balance an exciting remuneration package that attracts the best candidates with the long-term financial considerations of the business. Otherwise when your big day comes round, you may find your best players are missing.
The scenario is this: an employee is summoned to a disciplinary meeting with the employer to discuss an allegation of misconduct. The employee, not trusting that the employer’s minutes of the meeting will be an accurate reflection of what was said, covertly records the meeting. She is dismissed and then decides to use the recording as evidence at the hearing of her unfair dismissal claim. Can she do so? It is a tricky issue that crops up fairly regularly.
Ian Mann, barrister of 13 King’s Bench Walk, Temple, explains the case that says, more or less, yes. In a meeting with the Hertfordshire school she worked at as a teaching assistant, a Mrs Dogherty secretly recorded not just the “open” part of the meeting she attended but also the “private” session after she was asked to leave the room whilst the school governors considered her fate. Her contract of employment did not forbid covert recordings of meetings.
In court, the school argued that the governors’ rights under European Human Rights legislation had been infringed. This was rejected by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). The central issue, as far as the recording of the “open” part of the meeting was concerned, was to consider whether the evidence on the tape was relevant to Mrs Dogherty’s unfair dismissal claim. It was and so was allowed to be heard.
As Ian Mann points out, this is not new law – the EAT relied on a 2004 case as confirmation. Furthermore, English courts are normally more interested in the quality of the evidence than in how it was obtained. Put another way, does the end justify the means? In this case it did, but only as far as the “open” part of the meeting.
A different result applied to the “private” session – when Mrs Dogherty had been asked to leave the room for the governors’ private discussion. The recording of that part of the meeting was not allowed in evidence.
This is a difficult issue for employers. How should you approach it? Start by drafting or amending your contracts of employment and employment handbooks to ban any covert recording of disciplinary meetings. If, as an employer, you face conducting a disciplinary meeting, state that you do not agree to the meeting being recorded and ask if the employee is in fact doing so. If the employee does so and lies, it could affect their credibility. However, raising recording as an issue can be a double-edged sword; there is no reason why, if an employer intends to conduct proceedings fairly, they would not agree to a tape being made. And it is likely that the file will be allowed in evidence anyway.
You could also consider arranging your own recording (not covertly, of course) thus meaning that there is no need for the employee to make their own copy. Of course, this also means that you have to conduct the meeting fairly. An Employment Tribunal is likely to be impressed by an employer who tapes disciplinary meetings because it demonstrates openness and confidence in dealing with the meeting. There can also be no argument in Tribunal as to what was said at the meeting. It is of course important to ensure that whether taped or not, good notes of the meeting are taken, and that whoever is present in the meeting has taken legal advice beforehand and is aware of what ought and ought not to be discussed at such meetings.