New FTC guidelines take on bloggers
Share with others:
The 81-page document would never make a popular blog post. It's full of footnotes, endless acronyms and the word "therein."
But the latest guidelines on advertising and endorsements from the Federal Trade Commission -- its first new post on the subject in almost 30 years -- have stretched the agency's purview to the online world. That means the FTC is taking on a borderless country that's used to doing the rankling, not getting rankled itself.
It's common practice now for old-school advertising to follow FTC rules, which require transparency between endorsers and the advertisers who pay them. These updated guides extend FTC disclosure rules to social media -- the world of neighborhood bloggers and amateur pundits.
Announced in October and effective Dec. 1, the new FTC guidelines have awakened bloggers to a bureaucratic world that jars with a culture that celebrates populism and casualness. Besides, no place is as self-policing as the Internet, where falsity is met by low page views and, when the gloves come off, shouting in the comments section.
Here's an FTC example: A blogger reviews a video game that he received free for review from the gaming company. Now, the blogger must disclose the gratis nature of his review copy or else hold himself and the gaming company subject to FTC investigation.
Personal blogs must follow the new guidelines, as do postings in social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
It's a self-policing community, which means some think the FTC is a little like Mom asking the kids if she can join the party.
Bloggers have responded with predictable unpredictability: some welcome the credibility and others see unnecessary regulation. Most just want to be left alone.
"It's not that hard to be honest," said Michelle, who runs the parenting blog BurghBaby.com. She doesn't use her last name, presciently thinking of her young daughter's future Google hits.
"It's unfortunate that the FTC had to step in," she said.
The agency disputes its new reputation as the Internet's Joe McCarthy.
"We're not peeping in everyone's windows," said Richard Cleland, supervisor of the FTC guidelines project. He said some misconceptions have fueled worries of a witch hunt, especially involving an $11,000 fine that's only possible in unlikely hypothetical situations but is routinely cited as Big Brother imposition.
"The purpose was to take these established principles and see how they apply to these new forms of advertising," he said.
"These guidelines really didn't do anything more than apply an existing precedent to a situation that didn't exist back in 1980."
Blogging is the least of the advancements made since then: We didn't have Facebook walls but we did have the Berlin Wall.
No one has reported any funny business since the enactment on Tuesday, but the FTC is working on a frequently asked questions section for its Web site.
"This is the beginning and not the end of the guidance," Mr. Cleland said.
It's hard to imagine the scope of explanation necessary for all of the questions the guidelines inspire. Twitter posts have a maximum capacity of 140 characters -- is that enough space for a sufficient disclosure? And is a Facebook status update also a blog? There are 300 million users right there.
Pittsburgh's blogging community has expanded like the national one. Back in 2004 -- "the Stone Age of blogging" -- Mike Woycheck in the North Hills co-founded PghBloggers.org, a directory of about 40 blogs.
In five years, the number of listed sites has grown to more than 700, and that's still a fraction of city involvement.
Mr. Woycheck said the Dec. 1 enforcement seems to have been met with a little ambivalence by the local blogosphere.
"If you're already just constantly giving positive reviews for products, then people are going to start believing that you're not telling the whole truth," he said.
Others think the quantifiable nature of online success and failure -- how many page views, how many comments? -- was evolving into a user-generated set of guidelines.
"There hasn't been enough time for the blogging community to develop its own ethical code, but it was obviously moving in that direction," said Tatyana Dumova, Point Park University digital media professor. Print journalism and public relations are industries with unique ethics codes, she said.
Dave Cherry's most popular blog, SteelersDepot.com, attracts up to 75,000 unique visitors per month, but he runs about 100 other Web sites, too. Most are niche sites, selling pretty specific products such as five-string bass guitars.
The Pensacola, Fla., resident (and Steeler fan "by the grace of God") is just the kind of homegrown blogger who taught himself HTML coding and shuns this kind of government intrusion.
"It's the government sticking its nose in another place it doesn't belong," he said. He doesn't expect much plausible enforcement, what with the countless bloggers out there and the guidelines' "loose language."
Some see a response uncommon for the ALL-CAPS emotions of the blogosphere: humility.
"Until these guidelines came out, there were some people who didn't think it applied to them, who said, 'Oh, I'm just a blogger,' " said Cynthia Closkey.
Ms. Closkey of Butler, runs her own blog, MyBrilliantMistakes.com, and also heads a Web site design firm called Big Big Design.
Blogging without full disclosure "looks slimy to everyone" and is already negatively perceived much like subliminal advertising -- as though the advertiser is duping the public to hide an under-par product. Besides, no one likes a poser.
"In the long term, bloggers are building relationships online," she said.
And now, the FTC guidelines mean never having to say you're sorry.
First Published December 6, 2009 12:00 am