FTC to blog scoundrels: We’re gonna nail you!

federal-trade-commission-ftc-logo_jpgYesterday, the Federal Trade Commission decreed that bloggers will tell the truth — or else! Secret blogola will not be tolerated.

In a nutshell, if you receive free products or other compensation in exchange for writing posts, you must disclose that compensation or face the consequences. Fines run as high as $11,000, reports say.

From the New York Times:

For bloggers who review products, this means that the days of an unimpeded flow of giveaways may be over. More broadly, the move suggests that the government is intent on bringing to bear on the Internet the same sorts of regulations that have governed other forms of media, like television or print.

“It crushes the idea that the Internet is separate from the kinds of concerns that have been attached to previous media,” said Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University.

I’ve not had time to read the FTC guidelines (available here), and you know what they say about the devil being in the details. But the concept of holding “endorsers” to a higher standard of transparency is one we should all embrace. Sure, not every blogger actually endorses products sent his/her way, but readers have a right to know if money or goods change hands. And now they will.

If you’re a  blogger who discloses potential conflicts of interest, this ruling won’t affect you. But if you’re one who hides such information from readers, here’s one blogger who hopes the FTC nails your sorry ass.

How did it come to this? It’s simple. The self-regulating world of social-media isn’t self-regulating. While many in the 2.0 space act responsibly and disclose their alliances, many others do not. Social media have become a haven for stealth marketing and conversational deception. The average consumer doesn’t know what to believe or whom to trust, and it’s getting worse.

Some thought leaders are none too happy about the news. Buzz Machine blogger Jeff Jarvis sees the FTC regs as a violation of free speech. Jay Yarow at Silicon Alley Insider calls them “ludicrous” and characterizes the move as paternalistic. Still others say the FTC guidelines could silence an entrepreneurial group of “Mommy Bloggers” who depend heavily on the largesse of consumer product companies.

What about mainstream media? Many critics are upset that the regs don’t apply to MSM, and they have a point. In my 16-odd years as a PR practitioner, I engineered at least a dozen expense-paid media junkets to exotic places, and never once do I recall a journalist disclosing my clients’ generosity — or the influence it may have had on their stories.

Did our gifts affect the coverage that emerged. Of course. And in the process, the readers were deceived.

Rant if you must about intrusive government, or about the unfair nature of these new FTC guidelines. But since the ever-transparent, ever-authentic world of 2.0 can’t police itself, Uncle Sam will now do it for us.

That’s the price we pay for collective bad behavior.

Update: Kami Huyse (Communication Overtones) has read the FTC guidelines and offers a nice summary of issues in her post today. She also includes a great example of online deception the FTC is targeting.

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19 Responses to FTC to blog scoundrels: We’re gonna nail you!

  1. Bill Huey says:

    How did it come to this? It was only a matter of time before good old hog-stomping capitalism invaded the rarefied air of the blogosphere and made it just like any other medium. This is something I predicted at a forum in Atlanta about 18 months ago, and the Tweetheads in the audience went nuts. I don’t know if they thought bloggers were somehow immune to commercialism or the medium was uniquely incorruptible, but they really went off on me. Anyway, the FTC has decided the blogosphere is just like any other medium, too, and issued 80 pages of rules (thanks, Kami, for the pdf). More to follow, I’ll guess.

  2. [...] FTC to blog scoundrels: We’re gonna nail you! « ToughSledding toughsledding.wordpress.com/2009/10/06/ftc-to-blog-scoundrels-were-gonna-nail-you – view page – cached Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission decreed that bloggers will tell the truth — or else! Secret blogola will not be tolerated. — From the page [...]

  3. Andy Curran says:

    Good luck policing this.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      FTC does a reasonable job responding to advertising complaints case-by-case. No reason to think this will be different. Key is to get the big players in line, and to get the attention of the corporate offenders. Many will toe the line once lawyers tell ‘em they gotta.

  4. Andy Curran says:

    It seems like overkill if it’s an obvious blatant product review. I always assume they got a free sample in order to review it in the first place and take it with a grain of salt. However, if it’s not obvious, like the blogger serves on the advisory board of the company, then disclosure would be necessary.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Well, you know what they say about “assume.” Turns out, many of these bloggers are being showered with freebies worth thousands of dollars — you know, expensive household tools, free use of cars for 6 months, etc. These kids of gifts turn bloggers into de facto business partners of the companies involved, and bias is unavoidable. Readers deserve a disclosure, same as they get in advertising — by law.

      Set the law aside. Ethical practice mandates a writer reveal such ties.

      So, where do we draw the line? That’s to be determined. Must I reveal when I review a book sent to me by a publisher? Perhaps not, as it’s only worth $15-$20. But a free garden tractor? A $2,0000 junket to the Coast? That changes the game entirely. Not sure if the guidelines have set dollar amount, and I’m not looking forward to reading 81 pages of government gobbletygok.

      Legitimate news organizations have had rules about freebies in place for decades. And sadly, absence of truth and transparency online demands we we impose similar standards on these “new media journalists.”

  5. Andy Curran says:

    Today’s edition of Inside Radio reports the FTC might impose disclosure rules on radio announcers doing live endorsement spots, and also make them responsible to verify their client is not falsely advertising.

  6. josef o. collentine says:

    It’s a good thought behind but it does limit freedom and thus limits free speech by making bloggers worried if they really can post this or if they missed something and will be sued.

    You and the Huffington post had a very different view on it. I’m more towards the Huffington way of looking at it as something to limit companies in their gifts for PR and not focusing on individuals.

    But as is taken up it is VERY interesting that these rules don’t apply to newspapers as well, which in my opinion makes more use there. Since the traditional media is seen as authoritative and correct it is of a much higher use to see how much the companies affected the article. Blogs are still looked upon critically and the same applies to an established blog that they will lose readers if they “go and do the company’s agendas”

    [sorry for the bad formulation, haven't slept much]

  7. Steve Dodd says:

    Bill, the issue of transparency is a big one. The fact that the FTC went after bloggers is likely because of all the attention the power of social media is getting. The same thing happened in the securities / mutual funds business a number of years ago when the “junkets” financial advisers we taken on stopped due to concerns of conflict of interest. The fact that this is still happening in MSM (I really didn’t think it was) is concerning to me and should be stopped as well. Any use of “sponsored opinion” strategies should be identified as it truly is paid advertising not opinions granted by someone’s free will.

  8. Allison says:

    I’ve always been very clear when I receive anything to review or when I’ve sent a blogger something to review. With my Gap relationship, I’ve been very clear that I was chosen by them and nothing was asked in return – no blog posts, twitter, mentions, etc.

    As of December 1, it will be interesting how this plays out in the blogging community. I’m especially interested in what some of the mom bloggers have to say because they have been heavily targeted for awhile now.

  9. Andy Curran says:

    I’m all for being above board, but I think the FTC will have a difficult time enforcing this. First, they have to keep track of X million blogs (whatever the number is now). Think of how many tech blogs there are. Most of these bloggers are geeks who review gadgets and software apps. Is the FTC going to monitor every one of these blogs every day? And what will their procedure be to find out whether or not the products they review were provided by the manufacturer? It just seems unwieldy.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      FTC will investigate complaints, just as it does with advertising. It will not monitor. That’s just not feasible. Assuming 98% of us obey the law (just a guess), it narrows the task.

  10. Blair Boone says:

    Bill’s right on enforcement. Complaints from competitors or consumers are usually what gets the FTC on the case for deceptive or otherwise inappropriate/illegal ads. That process is really just an extension of the vaunted “self-enforcement” trumpeted by SM true believers, but it provides actual enforcement for offenders who can’t be shamed. Let’s face it — if peer pressure was 100% effective, there’d be no spammers on the internet and no bloggers flogging free stuff without disclosing the relationship. I don’t see anyone on here saying banks and other lenders should be regulated solely by peer pressure and consumer feedback. Why should blogs be the only commercial speech in America that’s totally unregulated?

    And while I’m sure Bill is heartily sick of me harping on this point, as an advertising copywriter I don’t feel the pain of those who whine about having to follow the same kind of rules ad writers and art directors and agencies have followed for years. If it’s a paid ad, whether you get a check or a freebie or in-kind consideration, then disclose it. How hard is that?

  11. [...] that ethical bloggers already are following these guidelines of transparency. Others like blogger Bill Sledzik, says that every blogger should embrace these new changes of transparency because readers desrve [...]

  12. [...] Ethical bloggers and companies are already following these guidelines. Others like Bill Sledzik hail the move by the FTC. He makes a good point that bad actors have proven it can’t be self [...]

  13. [...] nature of the internet. Others think it’s a worthy effort, hoping the FTC nails “blogging scoundrels” seeing the regulations as a predictable price for “collective bad behavior“. Not [...]

  14. [...] you need to ask any recipient to transparently disclose incentives and gifts to be ethical and to follow the law, encouragement is appreciated. Manny explained, “It is hard for bloggers to continue without [...]

  15. [...] you need to ask any recipient to transparently disclose incentives and gifts to be ethical and to follow the law, encouragement is appreciated. Manny explained, “It is hard for bloggers to continue without [...]

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