When operating a business from an English-speaking country, it’s easy to overlook the finer details of legal requirements overseas. However, if your business also has a base in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, you will more than likely be required to provide an impressum on your online presences. Failure to do so could lead to disciplinary action, which could have serious consequences for the...
With the advent of social media, our world can at times, feel smaller than ever. Perusing through posts, checking tweets, and reading emails gives us constant insight into what friends and families are up to – even if they are located halfway across the planet.
In an increasingly globalised economy, it’s easy to think that these diminishing barriers also apply to business practices and norms. But even today, variations in legal practices, trade policies, as well as differences in cultures still loom large in shaping our intertwined economic environment. Perhaps no sector showcases some of the challenges such nuances are able to bring forth more than the current surge of web 2.0 companies currently conquering the globe. For established UK businesses, expanding into other EU countries is often the next step to scale. But setting up or expanding an enterprise abroad requires more than just being aware of macro trends, like those mentioned above. It’s often easy to forget the smaller, more workaday details when establishing an international presence. One interesting example that highlights the need for keeping up with such fine points is use of an Impressum (Latin for ‘printed’) in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
What is an Impressum?
Sometimes also translated as ‘imprint’, an Impressum is a type of notice that indicates basic legal and publication information to the visitor. While there is neither a direct translation nor an exact legal equivalent in the UK, Impressums do share some commonalities with other terms often found in English-speaking countries (e.g. ‘legal notice’ or ‘site notice’). They can be thought of as website credits, but are generally not the same as an ‘About us’ section on a website. However, website credits aren’t a legal requirement in the UK. Most website owners in the UK are legally required to add terms and conditions to their site alongside legal disclaimers especially businesses that are selling products or services through their website.
Companies, online shops, and online media outlets, such as newspapers, magazines, and journals, wishing to operate within any of these German-speaking countries are obliged to make this information easily available to users. According to German media laws, any website designated to be viewed by the public requires the addition of an imprint. This includes social media networks like Facebook or Twitter. Companies should ensure that their websites and social networks include the same information as part of their imprint.
This requirement also applies to legal entities registered outside of the German-speaking realm that compete on the respective German, Austrian, or Swiss markets. Failing to comply with such regulations can prove to be a burden and may result in written warnings or even fines of up to €50,000 (£40,000), such is the case in Germany.
As of May 25th, 2018, the European General Data Protection Regulation has been in place. Find out more about the GDPR in our dedicated article.
What does an Impressum need to display?
Below, we have laid out exactly what should appear in an Impressum in Germany. As anchored in the country’s telecommunication legislation, the following elements need to be present in every Impressum, if available.
- Name of the website operator or legal entity behind the web presence
- (commercial) address
- Contact information (email and telephone numbers should always be included; fax if applicable)
- German trade register number or foreign equivalent
- VAT identification number/business identification number
- Job or trade-related information (professional association/professional title)
- Information on the board of directors (should regulatory authorisation be required)
Some lines of work require the addition of special company information. For example, if a website provides journalistic or publishing services and content, it must mention the person responsible for producing the content. Special provisions are in place for businesses undergoing Liquidation: they must mention their current status in the website credits. The information a service provider has to include depends on the content and products a website provides.
With the Interstate Media Treaty, Germany added an obligation in the area of social media which does not refer to the impressum but to individual posts. Where website owners create posts automatically, this must be clearly indicated. For example, if new blog posts are auto-shared to social media channels, they must be marked as such. Companies that share promotional content through intermediaries must indicate this.
E-commerce websites require an additional designation. German law stipulates that online traders link to the European dispute settlement website. The platform mediates between sellers and customers in case of a dispute and provides information on customers’ rights.
Importantly, a website imprint should be easy to access and should not be hidden. This includes placing the imprint link where it is easily accessible. Website owners are reminded to ensure that their website credits section is clearly marked as such and visible on every single web page. The content should be regularly updated to reflect any changes.
German Impressum law doesn’t just affect websites. If you regularly send business emails, you should include a similar disclaimer.
Legal consequences of failing to include an Impressum
If you plan to establish an online business presence in Germany, you must adhere to the Impressum law. Website owners who choose to ignore these legal requirements face fines of up to €50,000 (£40,000). In addition, the law requires the commercial intention of a website to be clearly labelled as such. That means when you conduct business via your website, you must include your company address and legal entity in the imprint. You may also receive an official warning if you fail to include the relevant details in your imprint. This could incur legal costs and fines.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy when doing business internationally, and as the example above shows, being mindful of the unique quirks of your target country will not only facilitate trust: it will also help you steer clear of irritating warnings or burdensome fees.