Online rules out of line, critics say

For the London Free Press - November 16, 2009 Read this on Canoe

BLOGGING: Proposed U.S. guidelines would hold bloggers to ethical standards

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission recently proposed new guidelines pertaining to transparency in blogging.

Under the guidelines, bloggers who make an endorsement would have to disclose any material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

This would mean that any freebie a blogger receives would have to be fully disclosed to readers. And anytime a product is mentioned, any connection with the manufacturer would also have to be disclosed.

If the guidelines are adopted adopted, it would be the first time bloggers were brought under commission guidelines and the first time the FTC could go go after bloggers for "false claims" or "failure to disclose conflicts of interest."

Bloggers are currently not held to any ethical guidelines, as compared to the ethical standards of journalists. Bloggers would be required to disclose affiliations with sponsors and marketers and any free giveaways they receive. The proposed penalty for violating the rules: a fine of as much as $11,000.

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has been one of the strongest and most vocal critics of the guidelines.

In an open letter to the FTC, the IAB claims -- and rightly so -- that the guidelines unfairly regulate online media without doing the same for offline media.

IAB president and chief executive Randall Rothenberg is outraged by the guidelines and insists that, despite the FTC's argument that the guidelines are for "education", they simply provide a means for the FTC to pursue bloggers.

Rothenberg's criticism centres on the unfair treatment of online social media:

"The (guidelines) do allow you to pursue bloggers. They do hold individuals more liable than larger corporations. They do explicitly say online social media have less protection than offline corporate media," he says.

"They do obstruct online companies' opportunities to drive cultural conversation more than offline companies'. They do threaten with prosecution book publishers, movie producers, and other companies that supply products to individual social media conversationalists."

As Rothenberg notes, the bigger problem is that offline media are not held to the same restrictions. This unfair treatment of one medium and not another is alleged to violate the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Free speech and freedom of the press have been long entrenched in U.S. society as protectors of traditional media. It makes little sense to stifle online media, which has the potential to reach millions of people worldwide.

Despite these legal challenges, problems also arise because the guidelines may be impossible to follow.

And perhaps the most ludicrous issue is prosecution: the Internet is full of bloggers whose numbers change radically from day to day. How the FTC plans to enforce its proposed guidelines is unclear.

And blogging seems to have some inherent self-regulation, making one wonder why these guidelines are needed at all.

If a blogger continually prom-otes a product, it will quickly become clear if the product's manufacturer is behind the promotion, resulting in loss of credibility.

This is another example of why new ways of doing things should always be evaluated with an eye toward how similar, existing ways are already treated.