6 key legal issues for web workers

When you work online, it’s easy to feel relaxed about potential legal issues. Human resources has a harder time tracking you down and getting you to sign paperwork, you have some freedom from policies, and you may even officially be a contractor, without many obligations to follow the company’s lead on anything.

But the truth is that there are many laws that can potentially impact telecommuters and web workers. You have to have a clear picture of possible problems up front.

Benjamin Wright is an attorney specializing in the issues surrounding working online. He points to six key questions that web-based workers must keep in mind:

  1. Are there any legal restrictions on your ability to conduct business from your home?
  2. Do you have a clear contract with the employer explaining the relationship, compensation, tax issues, reimbursement for expenses and ownership of property (such as who owns the laptop you are using)?
  3. Are you an independent contractor or an employee, and do you understand your resulting tax obligations?
  4. Is the actual work you’re doing legitimate and legal?
  5. Have you taken care to protect any sensitive data or information you have access to?
  6. Do you need any special license or credentials to do the sort of work you’ve taken on?

Disregarding any of the above questions could easily wind up leading to major issues for any virtual staffer who ignores them.

Home offices

For many web-based workers, the best work space available is a spare room or space in your home. However, many municipalities and counties put limitations on what you can do in your home. Wright notes, “Some cities limit a citizen’s ability to conduct business out of their house, especially when the activity creates traffic, deliveries or noise. Some rental leases will also forbid the conduct of business out of an apartment.”

Employment status

When you work virtually, you are more likely to be asked to work as an independent contractor than if you’re going into an office every day. As such, you need to be aware of what your obligations are. “If you are an independent contractor (rather than an employee), you need to understand your state and federal tax responsibilities, including accounting for income, payment of estimated taxes, retention of receipts, and documentation for deductions such as home-office deduction,” Wright explains.

Employment contracts

Because there can be major tax issues if an employer tries to list you as a contractor  rather than as an employee, you do need a contract in hand.You also need that contract to detail your compensation and obligations.

Legitimate work

It’s not unheard of for a web-based worker to take on a project from someone she’s never met. That can make it harder to understand exactly what you’ve been asked to do. “Make sure you understand the full nature and legality of what you are doing. Some work-from-home schemes trick people into supporting illegal activities like online gambling or money-laundering. Make sure you know who your employer really is,” Wright points out. “If the work is too good to be true, you should be suspicious.”

Security and privacy

You may very well be handling information that must be kept secure and safe. That can take the shape of requirements to lock up files or computer equipment in your own home, or even take things a step beyond. Wright suggests, “If you are handling sensitive data (like personally-identifiable information pertaining to individual customers or patients), make sure you understand and implement proper security procedures.”


It can be surprising to see how many jobs are subject to licensing requirements, depending on where you live. Wright points out a particularly problematic example: “For example, in some states a person doing computer forensics work — which can even include some kinds of computer repair — must have a private investigator’s license.”

Image courtesy Flickr user Sam Howzit