Karen Anderson recently blogged about the FTC’s plans to draft new rules that allow them to go after bloggers for false claims and conflicts of interest. These plans have been in the works for months, but widespread awareness and concern seems to have only blossomed in the last few weeks, leaving little time for action before the guidelines take effect in July. This is unfortunate, because these guidelines are a bad idea.
We have several objections to new guidelines specifically targeting blogs and bloggers:
- Laws and regulations related to fraud already exist. If an author is not committing outright fraud, what crime are they committing that needs to be regulated?
- Neither compensation nor perceived conflict of interest cause false claims to be written or fraud to be committed, and there are examples where these offenses occur without any compensation or conflict of interest.
- Web users also shop at grocery stores, read magazines, and talk to friends. The store clerks, article authors, and friendly acquaintances don’t have their qualifications and objectivity vetted by the FTC. We call this personal responsibility.
- Blogs (and social media more generally) are largely and quite effectively self-policing. Bloggers that are “called out” for questionable information and relationships can very quickly be buried by negative reviews from others and thus lose the audience for which they exist. This can happen very, very quickly. To see examples, simply search on Google for a brand name that has a history of questionable customer opinion, and you’ll very often find that some of the top search results are negative reviews or even entire sites dedicated to lambasting that brand.
- The web, and particularly blogs, would be treated differently from other forms of media. For example, there is no law that says a book about computers and written by a Dell employee can’t favor Dell computers.
- The term “blogger” is very difficult to define. Does it apply to someone who writes product reviews on Yelp or Amazon? Are Twitter and Facebook users bloggers under these guidelines? There isn’t a consistently meaningful boundary between “blogs” and “not-blogs,” certainly nothing that won’t be rendered useless by unanticipated on-line developments. There really are no useful, future-proof definitions of a subset of web content.
- Assuming we could come up with a useful definition of the content at issue, we still have problems differentiating between offenders and non-offenders based upon the relationship between authors and site owners. For instance, if someone like Amazon hires subcontractors to write product descriptions, do the new guidelines require disclosure? What if that contractor also has a personal or business blog where they talk about Amazon or those products? What about ghostwriting or co-authorship?
The web is a profoundly empowering medium because of the freedom and ease with which people can find and share information with anyone. This freedom is fundamental to the web’s success and value. Regulating online content runs counter to the principles of the web, and it stifles the very freedom that makes the web what it is.