Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Govt Calls for Full Disclosure Among Bloggers...

In case you missed it, the Federal Trade Commission announced on Monday that, from now on, amateur bloggers must publicly disclose freebies and financial interests or else face fines of up to $11,000.

The problem the FTC is trying to address is that many bloggers and reviewers on sites like occasionally get free samples from, and sometimes even get paid by, the companies they're reviewing. The FTC sees this practice as deceptive and wants to ensure that "word-of-mouth endorsements on the net are easier to believe".

This is a noble goal, perhaps, but deeply misguided. One major problem with the plan is that it only applies to amateur bloggers and reviewers; NOT to professional established sites. As Wired reports, a wine hobbyist or an avid reader who simply wants to post a review about their favorite book on Amazon would have to disclose any freebies he received or face a hefty fine, however Consumer Reports or Wired's Gadget Lab would not face the same requirement. "The FTC's logic is that people trust established sites".

There are other issues that make the new rules impractical.

  1. Is it enough to disclose on an “About Me” page that one accepts samples or does each review need to have that disclosure?

  2. Do the rules apply to blog posts only, or other online mechanisms as well? For example, what about short 140-character reviews on Twitter (where there isn't necessarily room for a disclosure statement)?

  3. What are the responsibilities of aggregation sites like Google and Microsoft that might display posts that are "sponsored"? Likewise, what about affiliate links that profit the blogger even if no freebie was given?

  4. Fundamentally, what is the distinction between a professional site and an amateur one?

These are all excellent questions that the FTC has failed to address. There is no clarity in the new rules, thus creating mass confusion that will lead to either 1) a chilling effect on speech, or 2) people completely ignoring the rules.

The FTC's attempt to regulate "amateur" content online is a bad idea almost any way you look at it. Let websites work it out on their own - most will find that reliable and honest reviews will bring return traffic while hucksters will be weeded out and gain a reputation for being exactly that. Full disclosure is in reviewers' best self-interest anyway, and that applies to all websites, amateur and professional alike. The government need not get involved in such regulation at all.


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