Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

FTC Is Okay By Me

I'm fired up about the new FTC rules regarding bloggers. I didn't say I was mad or annoyed about it. Actually, I'm happy and excited. For those who don't pay attention to what goes on in the blog world (and yet you're reading this... whatever.) there are new rules in the U.S. regarding how you present certain information about products in blogs.

The U.S.Federal Trade Commission, commonly called the FTC, is charged with insuring fair trade in the United States. Part of their mission, I would argue the most important part, is consumer protection. These are the federal watchdogs that make sure that business doesn't take advantage of the average consumer. That is precisely what they are doing with the new rules for bloggers. In a nutshell, if you get paid to write good things about products, you have to reveal that. If you talk about the results of a test or a consumer experience that you know are not typical, you have to say what is typical. If a company comps you with free products, services, or tickets to a Buffalo Bills game, you have to reveal that too. Okay maybe not the Bills tickets this season. (I live in Buffalo, NY so no hate mail please. You know it's true.)

Basically, if you are being paid to say nice things, it is a paid endorsement and that has to be disclosed. It doesn't matter if the payment is money or in-kind. You have to let people know that you may be influenced by that compensation. This is not a privacy issue, it's a commercial one. It is important that someone reading a blog know what conflicts of interest may exist that could effect what the blogger says. This is not about free speech. It is about commercial speech which can have restrictions not applicable to individuals.

Frankly, these rules are no different from what you see on TV or in newspapers. When a celebrity endorses a product on TV, at the bottom of the screen are tiny letters that say “Paid Endorsement”. This is because it is really an advertisement, placed by an agency or company, and using the actor as a spokesperson. The only real difference is when they tell you that you can make millions with no money down, they have to let you know that that only applies to those at the top of the pyramid. Getting rich without risking your own money has not been typical since the dot com crash. Unless you are a Wall Street banker of course.

And while the rules don't address Twitter and Facebook specifically, the same should apply in those media as well. While we're at it, white papers should also denote when something is done for pay. When I was in the analyst game, I insisted that any white paper I put my name on be only what I wanted to write. Otherwise, the company could have the paper but leave my name off of it. Even with creative control, I still told the audience that it was a sponsored paper. Despite my best efforts, I still couldn't be sure that my client didn't exert some influence that created a conflict of interest. Not in a nefarious manner mind you. It's just that relying on someone for your livelihood can change your perspective even if you are not aware of it.

So, I'm glad for the new rules. It's sad that we need the government to remind us of our ethical duty. It's unfortunate that we can't trust what we read. Too bad. But until the day comes that all people are perfect, I'm glad to see my government taking a stand and insisting on good behavior for our citizens. Thanks FTC.

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