06/28/09: It’s about time we hit the brakes on unscrupulous bloggers

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE BLOGOSPHERE is all atwitter about the pending oversight of the Federal Trade Commission. New guidelines are expected late this summer and with them will come a bit of taming of the wild, wild world of the Internet.

The FTC is charged with protecting consumers. It administers a wide variety of laws. A quick check of its Web site — www.ftc.gov — gives you an idea of how broad the commission’s authority is. It has won judgments against bogus billing companies, payment processors, foreclosure prevention specialists and corporate merger violators. It is the FTC that requires those disclosures you often see in the fine print of ads, such as “results not typical.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the agency would want to make it clear that endorsements and testimonials in the new media are subject to the same rules as other advertisers.

The Internet has grown exponentially over the years. Reston-based comScore Inc. estimates that the total U.S. Internet audience in May was in excess of 193 million individual visitors. That’s a whole lot of folks to try to persuade, as the ad man says, to “buy my product.” The Internet has increasingly become the source of information on products and services. Most consumers are aware, if they wind up on a commercial Web site, that someone is probably getting paid to write about the product or service featured.

But what about the bloggers? Most consumers aren’t aware that many bloggers participate in various marketing arrangements to make money. Some simply place ads on their sites.

Technorati, a leader in tracking and indexing blogs, reported in 2008 that 54 percent of blogs contained some form of advertising. Other bloggers participate in pay-per-post arrangements, earning hundreds or thousands of dollars for each post. Still others write reviews for pay, either in cash or goods.

When I co-owned an online technology site, we often received software or other small items for free in exchange for a review. Generally speaking, we had to return the pricey items after reviewing them, but times they are a-changin’. Reports of free computers, trips and other items are no longer as rare as they once were.

Some bloggers disclose these compensation arrangements; others don’t. Although the rules already apply, for the most part it has been within the discretion of the blogger whether to disclose these arrangements. Some blogger groups, such as the Media Bloggers Association, of which I am a member, encourage, but do not require, its members to embrace transparency and to disclose anything “that might influence or appear to influence” the blogger’s independence and integrity. I take the standards of the MBA seriously. The proposed guidelines would make others do the same. Failure to do so would subject the blogger — and the advertiser — to penalties.

In its announcement, the FTC proposed three new examples to be included in the guidelines reflecting material connections between endorsers and advertisers as they relate to the new media. Comments on these three were specifically requested, and the public comments didn’t disappoint. Interestingly enough, not a single one of the 17 public comments came from bloggers. (The public comments are available at www.ftc.gov/os/comments/endorsementguides2/index.shtm)

Most of the comments came from trade organizations, who count advertisers among their members. Several said that regulating the new media was premature, with a couple of them saying such regulation would have a “chilling effect” as bloggers and other viral marketers would shy away from offering opinions that might subject them to claims of misleading the public.

I say hogwash. One of the main reasons bloggers blog is because they have something to say. Regulating blogs isn’t going to change that.

While the FTC believes that the industry should self-regulate, it is obvious that, for the most part, it has not. Bloggers who already adhere to transparency standards have nothing to fear from these proposed regulations. Those who don’t — consider yourself warned.