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Web ministry: Privacy and permissions

SUMMARY: Does your church have a policy that describes how it uses staff and member information online? Does it honor others' creativity by complying with copyright laws?

Here are five critical and practical tips for protecting privacy and securing permissions for your website's content.

1. Terms-of-use and privacy policy
Have a terms-of-use and privacy policy link on every page of your website. This page tells visitors how you will protect their rights should you gather any information about them. See what United Methodist Communications uses by clicking on the "Terms of Service" link at the bottom of any page.

Although most website visitors will not read these statements and policies, they are helpful should a problem occur. You already have something on your site spelling out the terms of use as well as how you protect people's privacy when personal information is shared there. We recommend that you consult an attorney to review your church's terms of use and privacy policy, so you are fully aware of your risks and responsibilities.

2. Use of names
When mentioning members online, avoid using full names. Use a first name and last initial instead. Also, refrain from posting personal information that is accessible to everyone who visits your church's site. Use a password-protected "members-only" section if you must post personal information.

Avoid posting home contact info (address, phone, email) for staff and lay leaders. Set up generic email addresses, which allow people to make direct contact, but only through the site. Examples include "" or "" The email can forward automatically to the preferred address of the person holding that position.

Keeping personal information private also applies to PDFs. If your site has an archive of newsletters, for instance, remember that many were created with an in-house audience in mind. Once you post the archives online (if not password protected), they become public documents. This is true of prayer lists as well.

3. Photographs
Have people sign a release form or announce at the beginning of events (from the podium or through signage) that photos will be taken for publicity purposes. Have people who do not want to be online identify themselves and direct the photographer to avoid them.

Be sensitive when posting photos. What you think of as a fun picture may embarrass the people in the photograph. Be especially sensitive about photos taken in the summer, at camp, around water or in extreme heat. We never know who is looking at the site or even flipping through random photos via a Google image search.

4. Photos of children
Do you need permission to post pictures of children on your website? Legally, you can display any picture you take in public that contains recognizable images of people, regardless of age. Ethically, and especially as people of faith who value and want to protect children, we strongly recommended you gain permission, preferably written, from parents when using a recognizable image of a child who is under 18. Many churches include a check box on standard permission forms where parents can say "yes" or "no" to having their child photographed or having the photo posted online.

If your website is designed specifically for children under the age of 13, you should know and implement specific legal requirements under the COPPA law of 1998:

If you display images of children or youth (or even of adults) on your website, do not identify them by name in the accompanying text, in a caption or in the title of the image file.

If it is not necessary to display a particular person's photograph, consider using stock photos. Your site can convey that your church is child friendly, has a vibrant youth ministry or is ethnically diverse. Use photos depicting these characteristics, as long as they are representative of your congregation.

5. Copyrights
What about using photographs, graphics, text, audio and video that are not original works created for your site? You must obtain permission from the copyright holder. A CCLI or CVLI license to cover the use of songs or videos during live worship, events or ministries does not apply to the Internet. recently announced a blanket license to cover use on the Web of recorded music from dozens of publishing companies. This is similar to CCLI and CVLI licenses. However, you must be a part of OneLicense's general copyright license program in order to add the audio- or video-sharing option.

The full extent of copyright law, fair use and other issues related to the Internet is well beyond the scope of this article. Follow these links, and consult a copyright attorney with specific questions or concerns:

Sample Policies, Tips and Helps: