FTC Eyes Blogs for Conflicts of Interest

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Scanning Weblogs for product information and reviews has become a cornerstone in contemporary consumerism. Often, readers appreciate the opinion of someone who is not an expert to guide them to the right product. What some consumers may not know is that some of these writers are being paid for their smiles in the form of cash, free products and lavish trips.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission wants to crack down on this, the latest form of payola, as part of its longstanding charge to protect consumers from false and misleading advertising. In order to do so, the organization proposes searching blogs for misleading information and failure to publicize potential conflicts of interest. That means any blog that reviews products -- whether it is padded by corporations or not -- is subject to a thorough examination.

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The updated FTC Guidelines Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising [PDF] are expected to pass later this summer, possibly with some modifications. If the plans are approved, the FTC will actively go after bloggers who fail to disclose if they're being compensated for their words. The FTC could then order violators to stop and pay restitution to consumers, or even sic the Justice Department on them for civil penalties. While penalties for failure to disclose financial interest have existed in the past, the FTC is broadening the scope of the media it is actively reviewing to cover blogs and bloggers. It may have been watching before, but now it's prepared to pounce.

There currently is no regulation in place specifically regarding bloggers and payola. Professional journalists and product reviewers are beholden to their employers and professional ethics policies, often have to return review products after the review is published. (Here are PC World's Editorial Guidelines.) But because bloggers have no such guidelines unless they impose them on themselves, the rules are out the window and corporations can stuff wallets all they want, in any way they want.

It's a good idea to crack down on this new wave of unprofessional behavior. Nonprofessional product review blogs should maintain the integrity of an Internet community where average citizens can freely share ideas without the threat of being swindled by a massive corporation. By accepting payment and benefits from these companies without specifically stating that is being done violates the trust of a community and serves to destroy its very foundation.

But it's also unnerving that the FTC is broadening the scope of the media it is watching to zero in on bloggers. This means that any blogger who is or is not paid by a corporation to deliver positive reviews may be under scrutiny. It also means that if you review products on your personal blog, there's a good chance that blog will be read by government suits. While many product review blogs are public and desire Web traffic, some may not desire this kind of publicity and still be haunted by the feds.

While the FTC is within its charter to exercise the same oversight of the Internet that it does with other media, this case highlights how the government is taking a more hands-on approach to the Net. This is a good thing, but it also runs the risk of raising hairs on the necks of privacy watchers who aren't so keen on having their personal blogs examined so closely.

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