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Journalists have long been held accountable to readers about what companies they receive money from and invest in. But bloggers have had more leeway in exchanging free products and services for coverage. But the Federal Trade Commission would like to change that, with new rules that would require bloggers to disclose any conflicts of interest in their online coverage.
According to the Associated Press:
"New guidelines, expected to be approved late this summer with possible modifications, would clarify that the agency can go after bloggers--as well as the companies that compensate them--for any false claims or failure to disclose conflicts of interest. It would be the first time the FTC tries to patrol systematically what bloggers say and do online. The common practice of posting a graphical ad or a link to an online retailer — and getting commissions for any sales from it — would be enough to trigger oversight."
As blogging becomes more institutionalized, the matter of where money goes online becomes more important. However, with the new guidelines unfinalized, it remains unclear on how effective — or ruthless — they will be.
Most large bloggers disclose when they get free merchandise from a company. But the FTC isn't only concerned with that. The new rules may not distinguish between review sites and personal blogs. And bloggers who set up a link through ecommerce sites like Amazon and receive a commission when a reader clicks through to buy could be considered affiliate maketers. Furthermore, companies could be accountable for every single blogger they have a relationship with, which could make blogger freebies a very expensive endeavor for brands.
According to Rich Cleland, assistant director in the FTC's division of advertising practices: "Online, if you think that somebody is providing you with independent advice and ... they have an economic motive for what they're saying, that's information a consumer should know."
That becomes especially important as more consumers go online in search of purchasing advice. According to Neilsen, 76% of consumers don’t think companies tell the truth in advertising. However, the fact that 78% trust the recommendation of other consumers is making product reviews a serious business.
And yet, most online review sites already self-regulate in this regard. While the FTC might want to oversee big players in the space, going after small websites and individuals seems like a thankless task. Would positive Twitters come under fire?
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, tells AP:
"Rules are set by the individuals who create the blog. Some people will accept payments and free gifts, and some people won't. There's no established norm yet."