Considerations for Providing Professional Services Online
Jeanne H. Yamamura and Fritz H. Grupe
- An accounting firm expanding on the Internet will likely explore
several different strategies. They range from offering only selected
accounting services, to providing a complete line of the firm’s
services to clients online. Alternatively, a firm may simply want
clients to be able to receive information from the firm’s
website. In between these extremes fall such activities as marketing,
instruction, referral, and chatrooms or bulletin boards.
services online enables practitioners to serve customers remotely;
however, it also creates the potential for both intentional and
inadvertent abuse. Only limited regulatory or professional standards
specifically address online service providers. In addition, most
professional codes of conduct fail to address Internet delivery
of services. As a result, CPAs are left with little ethical guidance
when problems unique to the Internet arise. Professionals may
not be fully aware of the ethical issues that could arise or how
their codes apply on the Internet.
to start is with the guidelines adopted by the medical and counseling
professions that specifically address Internet practice. The following
sections identify differences occurring in an online service environment,
discuss ethical issues raised, and propose guidelines for an online
code of ethics for business and financial professionals.
Professional Service Environment
of benefits accompanying Internet service delivery motivates an
increasing number of firms to join the ranks of those providing
online services. Benefits include easy access to an expanded group
of potential customers at relatively low cost, potential time-savings
for service providers as well as customers, and the ability to
offer uniquely web-based services.
validity, security, access, and communications problems arise.
On the Internet, clients find it difficult to evaluate professional
qualifications and the validity and quality of the service provided.
Consider the recent cases involving 15-year-olds providing legal
and investing advice (i.e., Jonathan Lebed’s manipulation
of the stock market and Marcus Arnold’s dispensing of legal
advice under the online handle “LawGuy1975.” See “Faking
It,” by Michael Lewis, New York Times Magazine,
July 15, 2001). Security problems arise and confidential information
may be exposed or stolen (e.g., H&R Block’s embarrassment
in 2000 when its online filing service revealed prior filers’
complete tax information).
Ease of access
may lead to misunderstandings about availability and response
time. Because the Internet is open around the clock, clients may
expect immediate responses from professional service providers.
Internet interactions also carry the potential for serious misunderstandings.
Face-to-face meetings enable participants to gather nonverbal,
visual, and auditory clues that enhance communication and reduce
confusion. Communication problems may also result from an inability
on the part of the professional or the client to use or understand
technology. As a result, Internet-based service differs from that
based in traditional settings. Practitioners providing services
online must ensure that their company’s code of ethics addresses
Internet’s rapid expansion has enabled an equally rapid
expansion of web-based professional services, it has not been
matched by the consideration and understanding of the related
ethical implications. The growth of new opportunities is accompanied
by equal, if not greater, growth in ethical issues for businesses
seeking to expand their offerings via the Internet. These issues
include the quality of services and information, privacy and security,
nature of relationship, forms of delivery, contractual considerations,
and regulation and enforcement.
of services and information. Providing services
via the Internet raises questions about the validity of the advice
offered by the professional. For example: Is such advice valid?
Is the recipient able to evaluate the quality of the advice received?
Alternatively, is the information provided by the client valid?
Does an obligation exist on the part of the professional to verify
the information received from Internet clients? The propriety
of services offered via the Internet raises other questions: Would
the services be better provided in a one-on-one setting? Should
online service providers be required to make clients aware that
better services might be provided in a personal, one-on-one meeting
because of the increased knowledge-sharing that would result?
communication prevent or hamper awareness of location-specific
factors, events, or cultural issues that may result in inappropriate
service, such as the failure to consider local tax consequences
due to a lack of knowledge regarding the client’s location?
Does a business
that offers information on a website for educational or other
purposes bear a responsibility to ensure the quality of the information?
Does an obligation exist to update the information? What responsibilities
exist for information obtained from other sources, such as hyperlinks?
Do the sources of all information need to be appropriately referenced?
and security. When information is collected from
the client, what degree of responsibility exists to protect client
identity and information? Does offering services via the Internet
require expanded levels and forms of security? Security breaches,
and thus confidentiality breaches, can occur during data transmission
from the client, as well as when information is stored on the
of relationship. It might become necessary to determine
when a professional Internet relationship begins or ends. Kirsti
A. Dyer (“Ethical Challenges of Medicine and Health on the
Internet,” Journal of Medical Internet Research,
noted, “Case law has not yet determined at what point …
the relationship begins, when the only contact is … online.”
availability of the Internet may result in clients expecting service
around the clock. It is important to clearly identify the online
“business hours” in terms understandable to all potential
website hosts discussions or chatrooms, how much responsibility
does the website owner have for monitoring the activity? Is the
“host” responsible for removing offensive remarks?
of delivery. Because professional services may be
rendered online in a variety of formats, should each format be
evaluated separately using a different ethical framework? Many
different technologies are used in service delivery, including
e-mail, Listservs, interactive websites, and virtual reality programs.
The characteristics of each technology differ in terms of their
impact on the professional’s ability to offer and provide
considerations. The legal requirements for providing
services via the Internet may not yet be fully established because
they—and the online service delivery mechanism—have
to evolve. For example, what responsibilities exist to protect
clients who contract for or receive services online? What should
professionals do to protect themselves when providing services
via the Internet? What steps would ensure that the client was
adequately informed, such as disclaimers or competence indicators?
ethical issues arise when the services and information are provided
at no cost versus in exchange for a fee? According to Alfred P.
Carlton, Jr. (Testimony Before the Federal Trade Commission at
Public Hearing on Possible Anticompetitive Efforts to Restrict
Competition on the Internet, October 9, 2002, www.ftc.gov/opp/ecommerce/anticompetitive/panel/carlton.pdf),
the question is how to differentiate legal information from legal
advice can be provided only by a licensed attorney, but can legal
information be provided by someone who is not a lawyer?
He noted that being able to adequately define the practice of
law was needed in order to identify improper practice, and that
“this is particularly important with the delivery of legal
services via the Internet because of the proliferation of entities
that provide people with legal assistance online.”
and enforcement. When licensed and certified professionals
follow stated principles, are they applicable when providing services
online? Will online service delivery be governed by the same standards
found in other settings, or will they differ?
Is the professional’s
competence adequately and truthfully communicated by the website?
If licenses or credentials are required for the off-line provision
of services, should the same requirements be established for online
Is the service
provided by the professional limited to a particular state or
country? Does the website clearly note such limitations so potential
clients are fully advised?
are available if the client is dissatisfied with the services
provided? Should data be provided on the quality of the professionals
and their business practice and services?
exist for the maintenance of records, and do they address the
form of the records as well as the length of time that they must
can have far-reaching and potentially crippling consequences for
uninformed online business providers. To help ensure that they
are adequately addressed, the authors have compiled the following
for Online Codes of Ethics
that follow have been adapted from codes of ethics developed by
the following healthcare and counseling organizations: American
Counseling Association; American School Counselors Association;
Health on the Net Foundation; and National Board for Certified
Counselors, Inc. These organizations have served as leaders in
addressing the ethical implications of online provision of services.
The recommendations address known problems as well as the ethical
recommend that business practitioners offering or planning to
offer services in an online environment create an online code
of ethics that can be added to an existing code of ethics. This
online code of ethics should address the following areas: professional
authority, complementarity and appropriateness, client confidentiality
and website security, attribution, honesty in advertising and
editorial policy, informed consent, client qualifications, off-line
contact, equal access, and authorization. Descriptions of the
information to be provided in each section are as follows:
1: Professional authority. Those responsible for
providing advice should be qualified professionals who are appropriately
certified, licensed, and adequately trained. A firm’s site
may include links to the websites of related certification bodies
and licensure boards. Any advice offered by nonqualified individuals
or organizations should be clearly labeled and identifiable. If
nonprofessionals under the supervision of a professional are offering
advice, the supervising professional, with contact information,
should be provided.
2: Complementarity and appropriateness. Firms should
consider whether a professional-to-client relationship is best
provided in a face-to-face meeting. The code of ethics may state
that online advice supports, but does not replace, one-on-one
3: Client confidentiality and website security. This
ever-expanding area addresses multiple concerns. First, the degree
to which client data and client identity are protected should
be identified. Ideally, such protection meets or exceeds any legal
requirements that may apply to the professional or to the client.
Consideration may be given to using the privacy framework issued
by the AICPA/CICA in 2003 regarding necessary security measures
and controls. For example, the framework recommends using standard
encryption technology for transmitting personal information. Second,
clients should be informed of the potential for loss of information
at their location, at the advisor’s location, and at intermediate
sites, as well as the limits of confidentiality. Third, procedures
related to the release of client information should be adopted.
Fourth, e-mail policies and procedures must be adopted to address
access and retention.
4: Attribution. The source and date of the publication
of information provided on a site should be identified. The last-modified
date of a page should be indicated. Any comments related to the
benefits or performance of a specific product or service should
be supported with appropriate evidence. Contact information, such
as e-mail addresses, should be clearly displayed.
5: Honesty in advertising and editorial policy.
The identities of commercial and noncommercial organizations that
provide funding, services, or material for the site should be
clearly displayed. The advertising policy and the receipt of advertising
should be disclosed. Paid advertising should be clearly differentiated
from other materials or text.
6: Informed consent. The use of an informed consent
form should be considered to ensure that both the client and the
professional understand the limitations of online advice provision.
The form may indicate that online advising is not appropriate
for all situations by identifying the limitations of the online
format. Properly constructed, an informed consent form can provide
the professional with some protection from liability related to
the provision of online services.
7: Client qualification. The professional may need
to adopt certain procedures to ensure that advice is given to
appropriate clients. Using passwords and other identifiers may
deter impostors from gaining access.
8: Off-line contact. Availability should be clearly
and understandably identified. Does the firm plan to respond to
queries 24/7? Is a backup advisor on call for emergencies? What
procedures should be followed in the event of technological failure?
9: Equal access. Consideration should be given to
reducing or eliminating any barriers preventing clients with disabilities
or minority groups from accessing the website.
10: Authorization. State law is currently unclear
as to whether Internet advising occurs in the advisor’s
or the client’s location. As a result, compliance with the
laws in both locations may be necessary. Efforts must be made
to comply with applicable local, state, and national statutes,
as well as codes of ethics for professional organizations, certification
entities, and licensing boards.
H. Yamamura, CPA, MIM, PhD, is an associate professor,
and Fritz H. Grupe, PhD, is a professor emeritus,
both in the department of accounting and information systems at
the University of Nevada–Reno.