Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Blogs That Advertise Will Be Monitored by the FTC

The FTC announced over the weekend that it will regulate blogs that carry advertising, evidently to "protect" consumers from confusion and potential conflicts of interest. Ed Morrissey at Hot Air:

"Maybe we all mistook which alphabet agency would come after blogs first. Originally, blogs fought against regulation from the Federal Election Commission, which hinted darkly at categorizing blogs as campaign speech and enforcing McCain-Feingold restrictions on bloggers. Only a concerted and bipartisan effort at the time put an end to that foolishness.

"Unfortunately, the effort to regulate blogs in the Obama administration will come from the Federal Trade Commission, as the FTC announced over the weekend:
Savvy consumers often go online for independent consumer reviews of products and services, scouring through comments from everyday Joes and Janes to help them find a gem or shun a lemon.

What some fail to realize, though, is that such reviews can be tainted: Many bloggers have accepted perks such as free laptops, trips to Europe, $500 gift cards or even thousands of dollars for a 200-word post. Bloggers vary in how they disclose such freebies, if they do so at all.

The practice has grown to the degree that the Federal Trade Commission is paying attention. New guidelines, expected to be approved late this summer with possible modifications, would clarify that the agency can go after bloggers - as well as the companies that compensate them - for any false claims or failure to disclose conflicts of interest.

It would be the first time the FTC tries to patrol systematically what bloggers say and do online. The common practice of posting a graphical ad or a link to an online retailer - and getting commissions for any sales from it - would be enough to trigger oversight."
Got that? A "graphical ad or a link to an online retailer" is "enough to trigger oversight." I found only one item on the FTC website that refers to the "problem" of advertising on the Internet in general, and specifically on blogs. From a report by the staff of the FTC (PDF here):
Finally, the proliferation of so many new media channels for distribution of content and advertising – blogs, vlogs, podcasts, virtual worlds, video on demand, social networking sites, and more – will make the task of monitoring advertising all the more difficult. Monitoring will also be complicated by the ability of marketers to customize advertising content, which potentially may result in the creation of thousands of similar, but non-identical advertisements. The FTC and other law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. and the world will need to work collaboratively and leverage technology to efficiently and effectively police an ever-increasing number of media sources that host advertising. [Emphasis added.]
The Chicago Tribune frames the issue with this headline,
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters suggests:
". . . that as the FTC begins monitoring bloggers for undisclosed conflicts of interest they start doing the same thing to the traditional media outlets that have thoroughly abdicated any journalistic integrity the past few years."
But, as it turns out, consumers are able to figure that out on their own.

Just for the record, we at Chicago Bungalow didn't get free laptops, trips to Europe, gift cards, or thousands of dollars for posts - but if you know where we can sign up for that, please let us know. We haven't taken a penny from anyone. As you can see, there are no ads here either, and now, there probably won't be because we can't afford the legal hassle if a Google context-sensitive ad for diapers appears when we suggest that Illinois Democrats need them in one of our posts. (We wouldn't be opposed to a PayPal tip jar, though, if we can figure out how to do it.)

And no, we're not claiming moral superiority because we haven't (so far) run ads. Many bloggers do run ads, and the great majority make very little, though they certainly deserve to be compensated for their work. And as Ed Morrissey points out:
Bloggers do not occupy either a public-airwave space or a space with shortage of bandwidth. They speak openly and freely, and have to maintain their credibility with their readers in order to maintain the kind of readership where these links start to accrue revenue back to the blogger. If readers think the blogger is nothing more than a shill, then readers will disappear. The free market takes care of itself in the blogosphere, especially in terms of credibility.
Evidently, the FTC must take drastic action because addle-brained consumers won't be able to discern whether a writer is credible or not (though they seem to be able to detect a credibility problem with national media outlets). Meanwhile, another slice of liberty is jeopardized for the sake of those few who - according to some - are too stupid to think for themselves.


Meg said...

I see this as a frightening step toward government censorship a la China on the internet. I see it as an end run around the first-amendment. All they need to do is find a blog saying things they don't like, then they can shut them down for "advertising". Gah.

Pat said...

Meg, it is 'chilling', as they say, and seems to be part of a broader move to quiet the opposition in blogs and talk radio. It shouldn't be a partisan issue, as doesn't just affect conservative blogs - not openly, anyway.

Thanks for the comment, and welcome to the stoop!

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