Regulating Blogging, One Step At A Time

Yesterday, Anthony Kirlew (thanks!) forwarded to me an article which outlined the Federal Trade Commissions (FTC) plans to regulate blogging by fining bloggers who don’t disclose their paid endorsements. As much as I think that full disclosure is important, the proposed US$11,000 per violation fine is way over the top. After all, most bloggers receive chump change for their endorsements, a little extra spending money to help them pay their bills.

Not So Clear

bloggerThe new rules, which will take effect on December 1, 2009, aren’t all that clear at the moment. The FTC (thank you, Laura Spencer!) has yet to issue guidelines on how bloggers must disclose paid endorsements though “clear and conspicuous” notification must be present. Likely, that will mean some sort of badge included with each review or perhaps something similar to how newspapers currently run “Paid Advertising” notices across the top of their pages when an advertorial is included.

Before you panic, the FTC has indicated that they are more likely to go after the advertiser than the blogger. At risk are those large blogs whose business is substantial and who has been warned previously by the FTC to “cease and desist” such practice. Still, a chill went through the blogosphere on Monday when the first announcements surfaced.

Bye, Bye Internet?

The FTC ruling follows closely on the heels of a decision made by the US government late last month to relax some of its control over the internet through ICANN. A US invention, the internet has spread worldwide which means that far more people using the internet live outside of the US than in it. On the surface this appears to be a solid move, but by opening up internet control to other countries, including those hostile to freedom of speech, that move could lead to content being regulated down the line.

For instance, if you have a Christian site where you espouse that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of the world, people in Islamic lands and elsewhere might object, perhaps shutting down your site or at least limiting its exposure. Right now, China, Vietnam and a host of dictatorial and religious freedom inhibiting countries heavily control web content. Might ceding control of the internet make it more likely that censorship will eventually become widespread? I believe that it would.

Blogging Interlude

Back during the 1990s when blogging emerged as the online journalists dream come true, I wasn’t paying all that much attention to the blogosphere, preferring to connect with people via forums and chat rooms. When I finally decided to blog on a steady basis, that was in 2004 and the blogging world was rapidly maturing. WordPress quickly became the de facto blog platform for people who wanted to control their own sites, putting aside its well known growing pains to become a force to be reckoned with.

Yet, I’ve long felt that the blogosphere was a delicate resource, one that operated at the whim of those who control the internet or at least the government overseeing the same. Until the announcement that the US would cede some control of the internet to others, I didn’t think twice about my freedoms. Now, I wonder where all of this will lead and am thinking that the interlude of grass roots inspired free speech may soon pass.

I certainly hope that I’m wrong, but this latest FTC announcement does little to allay those fears. Net neutrality is another issue I’m watching, yet another change coming to the internet.

Photo Credit: Ivan Petrov

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Comments

  1. I have often wondered how long it would take before someone decided it was in their interest to regulate the internet. This does bring up a delicate question. You mentioned the example of a Christian website being shut down by a government who does not agree with the faith. By the same token, a lot of people do not like the fact that the internet is loaded with pornography, myself included. I honestly wish there was no such thing online, but as long as it is not illegal, such as child pornography, then they do have a right to put it online. How far should regulation of the internet go?
    .-= LD Jackson´s last blog ..Alabama woman puts daughter on top of van =-.

  2. Matthew C. Keegan says:

    Good question, Larry. Perhaps moving all of the adult sites to a .xxx domain would be the way to go. Personally, I would toss all of it. Most definitely, no child porn would be allowed.

    I think ICANN is the right organization to continue to oversee the internet. They aren’t perfect, but then they aren’t likely to block entire sections of the internet as some governments currently do.

  3. I would tend to agree, Matt. I would get rid of all adult sites, but since that isn’t likely to happen, moving them to their own domain would be a good step. It would be very easy to block the entire domain with a firewall or hosts file.

    Good article, by the way.
    .-= LD Jackson´s last blog ..Alabama woman puts daughter on top of van =-.

  4. Matthew C. Keegan says:

    @LD Jackson
    It makes sense to move all of the trash over to one domain and enable people to block those sites. Right now, our kids access the internet via a kiddie browser, but those days won’t last. I’ll be shopping for better protection while keeping a close eye on their activity as they grow up.

  5. I actually expected this, Matt – and I warned about it many times. Not such big fines, but big. As far as for the rules not being clear, they are actually very clear, Matt. Here is the link to the complete document: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2009/10/091005endorsementguidesfnnotice.pdf
    .-= Mihaela Lica´s last blog ..NFL Takes Breast Cancer Awareness to New Heights =-.

  6. Matthew C. Keegan says:

    @Mihaela Lica
    Thanks, Mihaela. I wasn’t aware of the document, but at 81 pages it certainly is long!

    Yes, the warning signs have been there for years. I’m re-examining my own policies and will make some changes. I always disclose, but now I will cherry pick which products I will review and which ones I will avoid. Too risky of a deal if I mess up!

  7. “clear and conspicuous” I look forward to this decision of how to implement the required notification. In fact I hope they provide some advice or a Faq page for us bloggers who want to comply. With a December first deadline they better “get on it” with some actionable advice instead of just scare tactics with giant fines.
    .-= Mechanic Mark´s last blog ..Manual Transmission Facts =-.

  8. Matthew C. Keegan says:

    I agree, Mark. I need to see some hard facts first before deciding how I will respond. Across my blog network, I occasionally review products that have been supplied by companies. I don’t get money for this service, but I usually get to keep the item. Still, I always disclose what I’m doing because I think that it is fair to my readers to know where I’m coming from. Besides, an “endorsement” doesn’t mean that they’ll get a positive review either.

    Come December I may limit my review to books only. And those books only being the ones I’m interested in personally.

  9. Good information. I too, like the fact that I can write about what I think without fear, but I wouldn’t be sorry to see more clothing on a lot of the women sprinkled around on sites that are supposed to be “clean.”

  10. Matthew C. Keegan says:

    Shark, I really don’t want the FTC to get more involved in content other than advertising. The rest is actually censorship.

    However, I do agree with you on this point: some people should clean up their blogs and remove offensive photos. They don’t have to, but I also don’t have to visit their sites once I find this material.

  11. Matt: As 12/1/09 grows closer I have yet to find a shinning example of compliance that we can all look to for inspiration. Have you? I plan on complete compliance with the new FTC rules for websites no matter what the consequences to my business may be. I would just like some examples to follow.

    “What is unfortunate is that some bloggers aren’t willing to police themselves” If the FTC wants to look out for consumers they should mandate that Internet Browsers (firefox, safari, IE) notify surfers when affiliate links are present on the page. This way all websites all around the world would be compliant and notification provided by an unbiased third party.

    This feature could be turned off by the user and we could all get back to normal. A browser can determine material connections just like they can no-follow links.
    .-= Mechanic Mark´s last blog ..About Automotive Technology =-.

  12. Matthew C. Keegan says:

    Mark, I’m still not sure what will happen on December 1st. Right now, I’ve suspended most of my product reviews, but then again I regularly test new cars and post that information to my automotive blogs.

    At this point, I’m not too concerned, although I may limit my reviews to books only on most websites while still doing car reviews. I’ll need to look for some legal language to protect myself I suppose.

    Your suggestion is an interesting one, but not something that will be held up globally. Personally, I think the FTC is acting stupid with this request, though some sort of disclosure does make sense.

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