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.