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Thursday, Sep 30, 2004

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One can smell accountants many a cyber-mile off

D. Murali

IN BOOK three of Editing and Design, a Five-Volume Manual of English, Typography and Layout, Harold Evans narrates the story of a fishmonger who had a sign that said: FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. The fishmonger had a friend who persuaded him to rub out the word FRESH because naturally he wouldn't expect to sell fish that wasn't fresh; to rub out the word HERE because naturally he's selling it here, in the shop; to rub out the word SOLD because naturally he isn't giving it away; and finally to rub out the word FISH because you can smell it a mile off.

May be, one can smell accountants too many a cyber-mile off, which is why the latest guidelines from the Institute of Chartered Accountants specify what all should be rubbed out of particulars that the CAs post on Web sites.

First rule, don't `push' your ware to customers, advises the Institute; let them be `pulled', instead.

Don't fritter away e-mails, because `e' is for `economic'. So, CAs and firms should not circulate any information contained in the Web site "on their own or through e-mail or by any other mode or technique except on a specific `pull' request".

It could, therefore, be an infraction of professional ethics for CAs to let their Web site screens be seen even by casual passers-by!

Don't send out any circular to solicit people to visit your site, warns the Institute, permitting, however, CAs to mention site URL "on professional stationery".

On the site itself, you can mention the names of partners, their qualification details, but `area of experience' is to be displayed "only on specific `pull' request". That means don't pop up. No logos are allowed; so don't be surprised if you find an overzealous CA blanking out even the icons of Internet Explorer.

Web pages should be in your "trade name or individual name". The URL can be different from the name of the firm, "but it should not amount to soliciting clients or professional work or advertisement of professional attainments or services". That rules out URLs such as: "", "", "" and so on. "The Web site address should be as near as possible to the individual name/ trade name, firm name of the Chartered Accountant in practice or firm of Chartered Accountants in practice." If in doubt, contact the Committee on Ethical Standards and Unjustified Removal of Auditors (CESURA) of ICAI.

It is rumoured that when one Chattar Singh wanted, CESURA said no, because the name was too close to `charter'.

"There is no restriction on the colours," so you can run riot with imagination. Passport size photo is permitted, and you don't have to intimate to the Institute "the address of the Web site" within 30 days, as was required earlier. Bulletin board is okay, so are chat rooms, to "permit chatting amongst members of the ICAI and between Firms and their clients".

The Institute is still working on acceptable language that can be used in chats, but take care about "confidentiality protocol".

What about online advice? Yes, a CA can give such assistance to the clients and it can be free or for a fee. But don't give them advice if they didn't ask for it.

Is it necessary to get the content of Web sites approved by a Site Inspection Committee of the Central Council? No, that's not required, but the big brother watches, as always; so, "ICAI at its sole discretion may vet any of the Web sites created by its members or firms and would have powers to direct deletion of certain portions and/ or issue specific directions." Plus, "necessary action can be taken" under CA Regulations.

Are there any thoughts of the ICAI on the design of the site? Yes, the design should not be such as to solicit client or professional work or advertisement of professional attainments or services. You may like a "technical feature of Website" but that may run foul with the ethics rulebook, so be on guard. Something very subjective, this seems, because by the current yardstick, Flash may seem too flashy, and scrolling, too screaming.

"The Website should ensure adequate secrecy of the matters of the clients handled through Website," so think of interacting with them using encrypted text. No ads and banners are allowed. You can give links, only to the, the site of the ICAI, and also to its regional councils and branches and also to the Web sites of government or government departments and regulatory authorities.

Except these, "neither link to nor information about any other Web site is permitted."

The ICAI recognises that Web sites are a tough game to regulate, so it says, towards the end: "The Web site should be befitting the profession of Chartered Accountants and should not contain any information or material which is unbecoming of a chartered accountant." Behave yourself, in short.

It is strange that on one side, the ICAI lauds and rewards `best presented accounts' that sport innovative design and layout. But, on the other, the Institute fastens a chastity belt around its members in the form of strict guidelines for Web postings.

Doesn't this smell too fishy to pull?

The ICAI recognises that Web sites of its members are a tough game to regulate. But it has the discretion to vet any of these sites. So, the big brother watches, remember.

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