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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?