As has been anticipated for a while–and discussed during the Ethics of Blogging panel–the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has published explicit guidelines regarding how bloggers (at least within its jurisdiction) must disclose any “material connections” they have to the companies they endorse. The full details are available here.
Jarvis describes the regulations as “a monument to unintended consequence, hidden dangers, and dangerous assumptions…the greatest myth embedded within the FTC’s rules [is] that the government can and should sanitize the internet for our protection.”
Commenting on Jarvis’s post, Cutts replies:
As a Google engineer who has seen the damage done by fake blogs, sock puppets, and endless scams on the internet, I’m happy to take the opposite position: I think the FTC guidelines will make the web more useful and more trustworthy for consumers. Consumers don’t want to be shilled and they don’t want payola; they want a web that they can trust. The FTC guidelines just say that material connections should be disclosed. From having dealt with these issues over several years, I believe that will be a good thing for the web.
It’s a fascinating debate, and I can see merit in both sides. Like the folks at Reason, I lean libertarian (at least on issues of freedom of expression) and am not eager to see more government regulation of online speech. That said, I see the value of laws requiring truth in advertising, and I don’t see why pay-for-play bloggers should get a free pass if they are acting as advertisers. Interestingly, Jarvis’s response to Cutts is: “I trust you to regulate spam more than the FTC. You are better at it and have more impact.” That’s probably true today, but wouldn’t want to invest that responsibility in a company that makes 99% of its revenue from advertising.
Everyone in this discussion sees the value of transparency–the question is whether it should be a legal norm enforced through FTC regulation or a social norm enforced by the marketplace. Despite my general skepticism about regulation of expression, I temper my libertarianism with a dose of pragmatism. For example, I’m glad that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at least tries to regulate health claims–its efforts may not eliminate quackery, but they surely reduce the problem.
Do we need FTC regulation in order to tame the jungle of social media? For that matter, will regulations have a positive effect, or will sploggers and other scammers simply ignore them–and perhaps even more offshore? I share Jarvis’s fear that the regulation will cause more harm than good–perhaps even having chilling effects on would-be bloggers. Certainly the FTC will have to use its new power wisely–both to avoid trampling the existing blogosphere and to not scare off newcomers. Still, if the FTC shows that it is only out to get true scammers, it may help establish, in Cutts’s words, a web we can trust.
I’m Daniel Tunkelang, and I endorse this blog post.