There are a number of legal issues that intranet managers need to be aware of, and some apply to websites and any application with a web browser even if it is not an intranet.

Let me start by saying that I am not a lawyer and I guess you are not one either, so the information and advice I have set out below needs to be verified with the legal team in your organization. In this column I am only addressing accessibility issues and the use of photographs on intranets. There are many other issues!


The core set of guidelines on accessibility has been developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). These are very comprehensive but it is important to realize that they are guidelines and not standards. In most countries with laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities, the law does not cite these guidelines. In other words your intranet could be compliant with WAI but a court could rule that the rights of a disabled person have been infringed. It might be nothing to do with the browser but a result of a bright light shining onto a screen. Moving the person concerned to a different place in the office away from people they are working with just to provide good screen resolution might be seen as discrimination. That is why the legislation is not framed in terms of conformance to guidelines.

In the USA, there is the well-known Section 508 provisions, but there is nothing in Section 508 that requires private websites or intranets to comply unless they are receiving Federal funds or under contract with a Federal agency. The Section 508 provisions do however carry legal weight and the provisions are currently being revised and updated by the Access Board.

The use of HTML5 for audio and video presentation raises some difficult issues not only about audio and video but for any dynamic screen representation. A Working Draft of a new set of guidelines was published on 3 January 2012 and needs to be read through in detail.

The next challenge is the use of mobile devices. Someone may be able to access a smartphone to make calls very easily, but if they now have to use the smartphone to access the intranet to check a telephone number or meeting date, the accessibility guidelines need to be taken into account. There are some WAI mobile guidelines but these date from 2008 and are being overtaken by technology.

Photographs on Intranets

In principle it is a good idea to have pictures of people on the staff directory. However, there is legislation in all 27 EU member states that gives each employee the right not to have their picture on the intranet. This is because EU legislation has special provision for what is termed Sensitive Personal Information. This includes information about racial or ethnic origins, and that information is often very visible in a photograph. Because of the way the legislation is framed, the employee might feel able to have their photograph visible to users in other EU member states, but not in any other country that does not have equivalent data privacy legislation and there are very few of those.

There is a view that if a person has their photograph on a security badge it can then be used on the intranet. That is not the case in the EU, because a) the security card image cannot be digitally transmitted and b) there is a specific provision about maintaining the safety of employees. Another wrinkle is that the EU legislation applies to non-EU nationals working in the EU. The current EU legislation dates back to 1995 and there are plans to revise it over the next couple of years.

Content Contributors

It is easy to forget that content contributors may also have accessibility issues. These often only come to the surface when content contribution is decentralized. The organization may also want its experts to write a regular blog, but it could be that an expert may have a disability that prevents them from blogging. Then their expertise cannot be found easily by others and the expert may well have a case for discrimination. The solution might be that someone else keyboards the blog for them.

Informed Advice

Data privacy legislation has global impacts, and it could well be that even the legal team in corporate HQ are not aware of all the complexities of national legislation. Lawyers specializing in corporate finance and contracts are not likely to be up to speed on what is happening to Section 508 and the new EU legislation. The penalties are not just financial but reputational!

So, is your intranet legal? Perhaps now is the time to check!

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