Striking a blow against online deception

Oct. 12, 2009

Online communicators of all stripes, whether they blog or tweet or befriend on social networking sites, are now supposed to tell you when they’ve received any money or freebies in connection with recommendations they post about products they’ve tried out.

That’s what the Federal Trade Commission decided last week, after months of gathering public input and stroking its chin. And the response from the online commentariat—true, never a placid bunch–is an unusually powerful wave of indignation, splutter, fury and bile, including fierce denunciations from some of the most influential and most respected voices on the Internet.

“A dangerous federal intervention in social media” and “an attack on markets and free speech,” says Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media” and a major force for new-age citizen journalism. “Truly terrible,” Jeff Bercovici says on his widely followed Daily Finance blog on AOL.  “A monument to unintended consequence, hidden dangers and dangerous assumptions,” says Jeff Jarvis of CCNY’s journalism grad school and a prominent shaper of online practices.  Blogger Ron Hogan on AlleyCat suggests the FTC will now have to monitor 27.9 million Americans. Ryan Singel’s posting on Wired is headlined, “FTC tells amateur bloggers to disclose freebies or be fined,” and even Slate’s Jack Shafer, who is normally right about most everything, denounced “the FTC’s mad power grab” and declared:

“Allowing these guidelines to take effect would be like giving the government a no-knock warrant to investigate hundreds of thousands of blogs and hundreds of millions of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter users for … saying nice things about goods and services.”

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I don’t agree with these people at all.

Let’s back up. The FTC is the principal regulator of the advertising industry, which is some comfort to those of you who didn’t know the ad industry had a regulator. Accordingly, it promotes standards of truthfulness in commercial speech.

The commission was revising, for the first time since 1980, its general policies on product endorsements—endorsements from celebrities, “experts,” outside organizations and seemingly ordinary civilians—any advice to buy something from someone who appears to be standing apart from the people who produce it.

One problem the FTC was addressing is the bountiful supply of tempting marketing opportunities via online venues where people talk about things they buy and stuff they try. Marketers are aflutter over the possibilities of furtively seeding this cloud of independent and trustworthy commentators with payments and perks, so that they use their independence in trustworthy ways—meaning, to gush about the things they’re paid to gush about, just like any other self-respecting shills.

Fine. But when an Internet-chat tech maven praises a gadget, should she also have to mention that it was provided to her free of charge or, by the way, that she was given a free trip to a Vegas trade show so she could road-test it in a suitable setting?

You bet, said the FTC. Any time we’re led to believe that the opinion somebody expresses is truly theirs and the credibility we attach to that person’s words would be altered if we knew that he had gotten the product for free (or gotten something else of value from its producer), that’s something we should know.

What’s wrong with that? To be fair, the critics don’t quarrel with the desirability of disclosure; they revere transparency. But they’re annoyed that the FTC treats, say, a book reviewer for a newspaper differently from a freelance blogger. The newspaper employee wouldn’t have to say she got books for free while the blogger would. The commission reasons that employees in an organization with a culture of editorial independence deserve different treatment, but I think the critics are right. There’s no principled reason for the distinction.

And they object to the sweeping oversight powers the commission seems to be claiming: How on earth is anybody going to police hundreds of thousands of possibly corrupt voices?

For its part, the FTC has made it clear its focus is not on bloggers but on advertisers, who are responsible for telling online commentators about these disclosure obligations. That puts the burden where it belongs—on the people who seek to gain from what is, essentially, deception.

True, enforcement will be spotty. But then, we support speed limits even though we know that only a tiny fraction of the people who exceed them will ever be ticketed.

The challenge is much the same. To make sure that standards are posted and understood. In this case, the FTC has taken a reasonable step toward safeguarding the future of honest communication online.


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