Is Your Favorite Freelance Job Source in Violation of Federal Law?

freelance writing

by Joe Wallace

Whenever the federal government gets involved in regulating the Internet, I get nervous. The recent FTC interest in mommy blogs raised many an eyebrow, and it’s clear that if the “industry” doesn’t regulate itself where honesty in product reviews is concerned, the government might just decide to take it to a whole new level. It’s probably a false alarm where most bloggers are concerned–the FTC will likely simply create an enforcement issue with the companies providing things for bloggers to review rather than try to deal with blogs themselves.

But there’s a bigger, scarier issue that could bring federal involvement if some freelance websites don’t get their collective !#@* together.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states in no uncertain terms that no employer may “refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin“.

This doesn’t seem to be a problem for most American freelancers–after all, we’re dealing with English language websites, magazines and copy writing projects for the most part. But there’s a subculture in freelancing where companies from India seek and hire freelancers–both Americans and those native to India–for a variety of projects.

You can find many ads by and for India-based freelance projects on sites like and The problem? The language in the ads. Consider these found on, which originated at GetAFreelancer:

“Hi bidders I have a big project for indian…”


“Individual Indian web developers ONLY!”


“Need some fresh PVAs, all should be made using unique US IP, unique gmail accounts and US name(Not Indian).”

All of these posts could be considered a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yes, the third example is stretching things a bit–but ANY discriminatory language could raise the ire of the government or a lawsuit-happy lawyer.

But how, you ask? These websites– and aren’t responsible for the hiring practices of these job posters. But there’s one little problem:

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 SEC. 2000e-3. [Section 704] :

“Other Unlawful Employment Practices

(b) Printing or publication of notices or advertisements (emphasis mine) indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification, or discrimination; occupational qualification exception

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer, labor organization, employment agency, or joint labor-­management committee controlling apprenticeship or other training or retraining, including on­-the-­job training programs, to print or publish or cause to be printed or published any notice or advertisement relating to employment… indicating any preference, limitation, specification, or discrimination, based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

There are exceptions–sometimes national origin is considered a bona fide qualification. But in the case of many freelance writing projects, this is a huge gray area–can an American writer do the same work as the India-based freelancer? Can an American project manager exclude an freelancer from India but writing in the USA on the basis of national origin?

These issues are not directly addressed by the law–and the law does not state conclusively–as far as I can tell–whether or not a publication or website is exempt from liability for publishing a job ad which violates the Civil Rights Act.

“There’s no clear indication of a problem here, so what’s YOUR problem?” Good question.

The very existence of this gray area spells trouble for freelance websites who run ads with language that could put them in violation of federal law. Any uncharted waters in these issues of legality mean your site is subject to federal probes, lawsuits and other nightmares. Webmasters and bloggers–are you willing to take the risk?

4 thoughts on “Is Your Favorite Freelance Job Source in Violation of Federal Law?”

  1. Good catch, but consider this:

    It takes lawyers and lawyer’s bosses at FTC and other alphabet soup gubmint outposts to do the work of regulating anything. Since huge legal gray areas such as this one exist in many many areas of internet commerce, these people have to decide where to put themselves. And in my experience, institutional / civil bureaucrats decide what to pursue based on what’s in it for them – e.g., their own careers.

    There’d be some juice in it for someone at FTC who came down on a place like Yelp that distorts its own ratings. I could see it as a desirable thing for a gubmint lawyer/crew to brag later about having been part of making ratings sites less shady. But beating up sites that hire across borders for how they word their stuff seems far more ambiguous and less career-bolstering. Just a thought.

  2. Title VII of the act is something very few people acknowledge when writing about The Civil Rights Act of 1964. So, it was nice to see that you mentioned it.

    You did, however, leave out the part that makes your point moot: it only applies to employers, or their agents,” who have fifteen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year”

    This lets off the hook the majority of very small businesses, such as those hiring on sites such as GetAFreelancer.

    They are, as long as they have less than 15 employees, operating in compliance with the act.

    So, have no fear. . .Big Brother won’t be getting involved with this.

  3. Hey Shannon, thanks for responding! My problem with Title VII is that the prohibition against advertising the illegal practices seems very gray–there’s no language like the portion you cited letting people off the hook–and no provision letting the publisher of the job ad off the hook either–as near as I can tell.

    My issue is that the liability factor is due to the ambiguity of the language in the portion of the law that applies to job ads. Does the publisher get off the hook since they’re the middleman? Can a lawsuit happy lawyer or overzealous prosecutor make your life miserable because you ran the content?

    Also–while I do agree with you that some employers are indeed off the hook due to the 15 or more employees language, it’s not entirely clear in a number cases who is doing the hiring based on the ads. I used to run writer wanted ads for a company with more than 15 employees, but I wrote a lot of first person ads “I am seeking a writer to…”

    But yes, for some weird reason the law as it is written allows Joe Blow’s Writer Shop to TOTALLY discriminate against you if Joe Blow has no more than 14 and a half employees or so.

  4. Oh, I almost forgot…Rob, I do agree that the lazy factor is probably why none of this has become an issue…but the current utterly crazy political climate does make me wonder how soon until Kafka starts replacing Orwell in terms of the dread factor, if you know what I mean…

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