Franchising is highly regulated to create a fair and open marketplace for potential franchisees looking to make an investment in a business. In addition to maintaining compliance with the franchise regulations in general, franchisors should be mindful of their website’s legal compliance with regard to the legal requirements that affect it, including (i) the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), (ii) franchise disclosure document (“FDD”) disclaimers and (iii) registration state requirements.
I. ADA Compliance
The law is gray on whether or not websites are subject to ADA requirements. It is typically up to the courts to decide whether a website is a “place of public accommodation” such that the ADA standards would apply. As awareness of the ADA and its requirements continues to grow, it would only be beneficial to franchisors to assure that their websites are in compliance.
Websites can pose various difficulties for those with disabilities. The goal of the ADA requirements is for websites to be accessible to people with disabilities and ensure that these users will not be met with digital barriers when accessing the website. One example of website compliance is to provide information on the website that is perceivable to all users. This could mean, among other things, that any video content would include audio descriptions and subtitles. Another example would be to ensure that the entire website is navigable from keyboard commands, eliminating the need to handle a mouse or mousepad.
II. FDD Disclaimers
Franchisors should design their website in such a way to assure that visitors are aware the content is for informational purposes only and not to solicit offers. Offers to buy a franchise should only be made pursuant to the information provided in the FDD. One way to assure that the website content is not construed as an offer to purchase a franchise is to have a disclaimer on each separate page of the website.
Franchisors may share its financial performance representations in Item 19 of its FDD. While the franchisor’s website may provide general statements about franchise performance, all specific data should be reserved for the FDD. If a franchisor elects not to provide Item 19 representations in its FDD, there should be absolutely no similar financial representations of franchise development stated on the website.
III. Registration States
Several states require franchisors to register their FDDs with the state (among other requirements) prior to offering the franchise for sale in that state. Because of this, it is imperative that franchisors accurately note on their websites in which registration states they are selling their franchises and, conversely, in which states they have not filed their FDD. As always, franchisors should refer potential franchisees to the FDD for purchase guidance, rather than the information stated on the website.