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10.06.2009

Fine for Free or payments comments on blogs or websites

Some See Guidelines as Free Speech Threat

The Federal Trade Commission has released its revised guidelines concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. The revisions include a focus on "bloggers" and social media users, requiring them to properly disclose when they have received payment in the form of either money or product from a company or organization and produce content regarding said company or organization. The word is that bloggers can be fined up to $11,000 per post for not disclosing.

Have you ever mentioned a free product you received online and not disclosed it? Comment here.

The reasoning behind the guidelines seems noble enough - provide transparency and keep consumers safe from hokey information. However, the concept of the government dictating how this happens does not sit well with a lot of people. The revisions (which can be found in this 81 page document [pdf], should you care to peruse them [they start around page 55]) have ruffled quite a few feathers and the conversation has become one about free speech.

 Well-known author/editor/publisher Jeff Jarvis makes a really good point. He says the FTC assumes that the Internet is a medium. "It's not. It's a place where people talk. Most people who blog, as Pew found in a survey a few years ago, don't think they are doing anything remotely connected to journalism. I imagine that virtually no one on Facebook thinks they're making media. They're connecting. They're talking," he says. "So for the FTC to go after bloggers and social media – as they explicitly do – is the same as sending a government goon into Denny's to listen to the conversations in the corner booth and demand that you disclose that your Uncle Vinnie owns the pizzeria whose product you just endorsed."

It's not hard to find echoes of Jarvis's sentiment all over the web. Although, I don't believe I've seen it as eloquently put as with the Denny's analogy. Still, not everyone sees the FTC regulations as a bad thing. In fact, Google's Matt Cutts stepped into the conversation with Jeff Jarvis, expressing a bit more enthusiasm for the guidelines.

 "As a Google engineer who has seen the damage done by fake blogs, sock puppets, and endless scams on the internet, I'm happy to take the opposite position: I think the FTC guidelines will make the web more useful and more trustworthy for consumers," he says. "Consumers don't want to be shilled and they don't want payola; they want a web that they can trust. The FTC guidelines just say that material connections should be disclosed. From having dealt with these issues over several years, I believe that will be a good thing for the web."

Commenters essentially tell Matt the whole thing would smell a lot better if he were the one regulating it. The reasoning for this is that Matt is involved with the industry. He is not a government worker that has been one his whole life. He's been in the field. He knows the score. The argument coming from most of the opposition is not about the fundamental principle of making content more trustworthy for consumers. At the root of it, it appears that people are much more concerned about a government body of regulators who aren't necessarily involved with online content production telling them how it is, when there are many, many questions about what falls under the criteria.

A number of these questions are nicely placed in an " open letter to the FTC" from Ron Hogan at MediaBistro's GalleyCat. Here are a few of them:


- If an unpaid blogger at the Huffington Post "endorses" a consumer product without meeting the FTC guidelines for disclosure of "material connections" to the makers of that consumer product, who's liable: the blogger or the Huffington Post?

- If a blogger prints out a series of blog posts and distributes those printed copies, is he now the publisher of a newspaper or magazine? If so, the Village Voice is distributed for free, so can a blogger/publisher distribute his newspaper or magazine for free, too?

- What if a blogger confines herself to stating demonstrably proven facts about a book, its author, its contents, and the matter of its publication? Does the FTC consider that an endorsement? What if she confines herself to stating such facts and includes links to an ecommerce site? Has her writing somehow been transformed from a statement of fact to an endorsement?

There are plenty more where that came from. The list goes on. You can probably think of a few yourself. It may be hard for the guidelines to be enforced. The FTC does acknowledge that its guidelines aren't exactly the law themselves. The FTC says:

The Guides are administrative interpretations of the law intended to help advertisers comply with the Federal Trade Commission Act; they are not binding law themselves. In any law enforcement action challenging the allegedly deceptive use of testimonials or endorsements, the Commission would have the burden of proving that the challenged conduct violates the FTC Act.

It should also be noted that the rules presumably apply to publications beyond bloggers and social media users, but for some reason it appears that "bloggers" are the ones with whom the FTC had on its collective mind when drafting these guidelines. You have to wonder if they are able to come up with a definition for "blogging" (others have had trouble in the past. Even those directly involved in the online content industry). The rules are scheduled to take effect on December 1st.

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