GEORGIA BILL WOULD REGULATE ONLINE SELF-HELP PUBLISHERS

Update: The Georgia Senate passed this bill March 4.

 The Georgia Senate is considering today Senate Bill 209, a curious piece of legislation that appears to mandate a disclosure on all self-help publications indicating that such publications "are not a substitute for the advice of a professional in the relevant industry."

There is a lot of self-help material on the internet.

Senate Bill 209, which adds a sentence to Georgia's version of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, reads in its entirety:

No individual, company, or other entity shall be prohibited from making available, designing, creating, publishing, assembling, completing, distributing, displaying, or selling self-help documents, information, and automated forms in hard copy, electronically, or online, whether made available with or without a fee, provided that the storefront, website, or other medium from which the items are provided states that the items are not a substitute for the advice of a professional in the relevant industry.  

...  

All laws and parts of laws in conflict with this Act are repealed.  

We are trying today to get in touch with the sponsor of the bill, John Wilkinson, of Toccoa, Ga., to learn what his intentions are regarding this bill. S.B. 209 was approved Feb. 28 by the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, which Wilkinson chairs.

Georgia Senate Floor  

Bloomberg BNA's inhouse researchers have not been able to find similar legislation anywhere. I don't recall running across a bill like this either.

S.B. 209's reach is broad. There is a nearly infinite amount of "self-help" material on the internet, all of which could conceivably be subjected to a disclaimer requirement.

Yet I suspect that bill is actually designed to aid the consumer-facing legal information business, folks like LegalZoom and Nolo, companies that are commoditizing the low end of the legal services industry with forms and checklists and primers that might be good enough to substitute for an attorney (depending on one's tolerance for risk) on some matters. S.B. 209 would mitigate the risk of class action litigation as well as charges by state regulators that these legal information providers are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. S.B. 209 would also, by clearing away legal uncertainty, encourage more firms to jump into this space.

Here is the deal that S.B. 209 proposes for publishers: If you want to lawfully publish material that is intended to be a substitute for professional services, all you have to do is include a disclaimer indicating that your product is not a substitute for professional services.

Finally, I imagine it's possible that S.B. 209 is more of a gesture than a serious legislative proposal. There's no attempt to define "self-help" publications nor does the bill suggest acceptable language for the mandated disclosure nor does it contain an enforcement mechanism. This all might be unnecessary; though it seems like it should be in there.

If I learn anything more about S.B. 209 I will be sure to post it here.

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