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FTC Unsure How to Enforce Blogging Guidelines; May Target Twitter

In case you’ve forgotten, 2009 was the year the FTC decided to go after mom bloggers (and other bloggers) with $11,000 fines for not disclosing reviewed freebies, sponsored posts or other relationships with companies—or not.

Despite the fervor over the FTC’s new guidelines, the fact is that they were designed to target a specific group of bloggers—ones making a living (or just a killing) off free products which they automatically gave glowing reviews. (And let’s face it, who’s going to be sorry to see them go?) But the guidelines were written widely enough to apply to mom bloggers who use coupons to book reviewers who receive advance review copies, even though neither of those situations guarantees a good review or even coverage.

And now, the FTC is finally realizing how hard these guidelines will be to enforce—and not just for the targeted bloggers, and not even just for bloggers (as we’ve pointed out all along).

The FTC’s northeast regional director, Leonard Gordon, spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the guidelines, clarifying that the FTC has no intention of “storm troopers taking down suburban houses and seizing the computers of mommy bloggers.” (Whew.) Instead (emphasis added),

the agency wants to focus on people who are being paid to make plugs for products in “non-traditional contexts” such as tweeting. In particular, they’ll go after companies that make claims that aren’t true or can’t be substantiated, essentially the same mission of the FTC in holding companies accountable offline.

While the FTC is still deciding how the new blogger guidelines will be enforced, it’s concerned that consumers may not have sharpened the same sense of skepticism for online claims that they’ve developed for sources offline.

But the line for whether or not disclosure is necessary will likely be drawn in cases where consumers have a “reasonable expectation” that the author was not being paid to plug a product. “If the consumer knew that the person who was making that endorsement was being paid, would the consumer view that endorsement differently? I think that’s the bottom that we’re trying to get at,” said Mr. Gordon.

In light of the recent Kim Kardashian kerfluffle (a little piece of me died just typing that), it may be wise to consider other social media sites. On the other hand, it may also just open a whole new can of worms, since the FTC hasn’t figured out how it will enforce the guidelines it already has.

However, I wonder about that middle paragraph, where Gordon says that consumers aren’t as skeptical for online claims as offline claims. It’s hard for me to say whether I’m more skeptical about stuff I read online and stuff I hear offline, but I feel I’ve developed a ridiculously oversensitive healthy skepticism about reports and reviews from all sources.

But maybe everyone hasn’t—and there’s still an area where the FTC’s “reasonable expectation” would apply.

What do you think? Is it just that consumers aren’t savvy enough online, or should disclosure be mandatory? Will the FTC ever figure out how to enforce it?

  • http://agentdeepak.com/ Agent Deepak

    Good People (bloggers etc) will suffer the most if FTC will enforce the Law strongly. Spammers/the people FTC want to stop won’t even be affected. They will just do the damage and run away.
    .-= Agent Deepak´s last blog ..I Will NOT Comment on Your Blog =-.

  • http://www.teenius.com/ Simon | Teenius

    Have to agree with Deepak on this one.

    I mean, I don’t know the exact details of the new guidelines (I guess I should read them really :O), but it just seems a bit ridiculous that regular bloggers should have to disclose ties. I mean, in the offline world does that happen? From my experiences, no.

    That said, it would be extremely hard for the FTC to distinguish between “normal” bloggers and spammers, so it really has to be all or nothing on their part.
    .-= Simon | Teenius´s last blog ..Interview With Blogger & Comedian, Jordan Cooper =-.

  • http://hubpages.com/profile/dame+scribe Gin

    I can understand the idea. Afterall, products that are not approved by our own health departments getting sold to the public could prove to be dangerous. I am not sure either how one would circumvent such a problem other than maybe through originating host?

  • http://www.seansupplee.com Sean Supplee

    I am all for it. On my blog already just to place it safe whenever I recommend a product or do a review right after the link I put in a disclaimer letting my readers know I am an affiliate of the program and will earn money. I think people should let others know that they are going to earn a commission. It should not be hidden. If your a honest person you should have nothing to fear about the FTC rules. These rules have been in place for a long time not just last year. Its only now its been brought to the full attention of people.
    .-= Sean Supplee´s last blog ..How to get more twitter followers =-.

  • http://bigisthenewsmall.com Scott Williams

    This is the second article hat I’ve read about this in the last week. I guess I need to pay more attention. Michael Hyatt had an excellent blogpost about 5 Ways to Comply With The New FTC Guidelines for bloggers. You can read it here: http://bit.ly/8h1qwg
    .-= Scott Williams´s last blog ..Unlock Your Thinking =-.

  • http://www.inyourfacewisdom.com James Howard

    Hey Jordan,

    I don’t think that the consumers aren’t savvy enough.
    If I think about it neither was I when I first started online, like most people that start out online I tried all sorts of programs and products thinking the next one is telling the truth and I will be rolling in money before I can say, cash in the bank.

    I think it is a good rule in a way to stop scammers, but I can’t think how they will watch over every site online.

    James
    .-= James Howard´s last blog ..The FTC Rules the Easy Way =-.

  • Pingback: FTC Shifts Target From Blogs To Twitter?

  • http://affiliateredemption.com Landon S Lang

    Nice post, thanks for informing us about this FTC announcement.

    I don’t really see this affecting honest affiliates, especially those who gave bonus and being very transparent about how they’re getting commission and stuff.

    Everyone knows who’s getting the commission in the affiliate marketing niche for example.

    I’ve bookmarked, tweeted and even posted a blog summary here:

    http://affiliateredemption.com/ftc-shifts-target-from-blogs-to-twitter/
    .-= Landon S Lang´s last blog ..FTC Shifts Target From Blogs To Twitter? =-.

  • http://freegooglenexusone.blogspot.com mark

    It sure will be hard to monitor such sites, but for sites outside the US they don’t have to worry about.
    .-= mark´s last blog ..Free Google Nexus One Phone For Everyone Worldwide! =-.

  • http://www.eraserve.com/tutorials/ Andrew Plaisted

    I do not have a problem with Paid Reviews. I do not think Bloggers should have to disclose that. I also do not think they should be printing false claims about a product either.
    I feel I am Savvy enough online and have recognized many a paid review, when I cared…
    I do not think we need this…

  • http://www.usefularts.us Dave at UsefulArts

    Expect a show trial so the FTC can appear to have “done something….followed by chaser of well placed inaction. The regulation is more of a guideline — but both the FCC and FTC are hornier than high school student to regulate the web. (The Federal Election Commission floated a requirement to register political bloggers, which actually made it to congressional debate.)

    The same article reports that the Commission is also “crafting its next move” to regulate online behavioral targeting by requiring users to “opt in.” I found this suggestion cynical, and surprising set off to suggest that behavioral targeting may be as much an “online value” as Privacy. I’d appreciate a reality check, as this position is pretty novel — and my impulse would normally to go more privacy.