The Federal Trade Commission today approved rules for blogging endorsements.
The FTC said Monday its commissioners voted 4-0 to approve [its] final Web guidelines, which had been expected. Violating the rules, which take effect Dec. 1, could bring fines up to $11,000 per violation. Bloggers or advertisers also could face injunctions and be ordered to reimburse consumers for financial losses stemming from inappropriate product reviews.
The commission stopped short of specifying how bloggers must disclose conflicts of interest. Rich Cleland, assistant director of the FTC's advertising practices division, said the disclosure must be "clear and conspicuous," no matter what form it will take.
The upshot is that if a blogger receives a free product, the blogger must disclose that fact if he or she endorses or otherwise writes about the product. While disclosure of freebies is good ethics for bloggers generally, I predict that the end result is going to be a muddled morass in which nobody, including the FTC itself, understands the rules, but the government moves further toward regulation of blogs.
Yes, I believe in the slippery slope.
"Your honor, the courts have for years upheld the government's authority to regulate commercial speech on weblogs, including mandates for prominent disclosure of conflicts of interest. If we require bloggers to reveal that they receive free products from Coke or Pepsi, it only makes sense that we require Blogger X to disclose that he is employed by Party Y, or that he receives tips from Campaign Z. After all, if the government has a compelling interest to require bloggers to disclose commercial conflicts of interest, how much more important is the government's interest in guaranteeing free and fair elections, on the web as elsewhere?"
The FTC's proposal made many bloggers anxious. They said the scrutiny would make them nervous about posting even innocent comments.
To placate such fears, Cleland said the FTC will more likely go after an advertiser instead of a blogger for violations. The exception would be a blogger who runs a "substantial" operation that violates FTC rules and already received a warning, he said.
Define "substantial," in plain English, please. And also, define how the guidelines will punish those who file frivolous FTC complaints against a blogger for reasons that have nothing to do with advertising. "Hey, this guy sure does criticize the government a lot. I wonder whether he's getting free stuff from Amazon?"
Of course the final guidelines, I'm sure, will be a model of clarity, easy to understand for consumers, advertisers, and bloggers alike. No one will need a law degree to blog.
You can determine that for yourself, just by reading the Commission's EZ-2-Read 81 page Notice of intent to regulate.
Hat tip: Fritinancy, through Twitter.