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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."

Meghan Keane

Published 22 June, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

David Iwanow

David Iwanow, SEO Product Manager at Marktplaats.nl

I think this is one of the dumbest ideas to try and control the internet, so how does that affect if you are getting money from Google Adsense or Amazon sales? Most of the time no sales/revenue is made from these links so do they need to be disclosed or kept quite until some revenue/benefit is made?

The bigger issue is will you have to control your guest bloggers, people who post comments and place backlinks to their website? Does it matter if they have a commercial benefit?

I can see the idea that media/news blogs need to be more clear around product reviews but the bigger issue is how would the FTC control and enforce this and would it just affect the top 5% of bloggers such as Darren Rowse of ProBlogger.net?

Is there going to be a new rise of Blackhat bloggers who sit below the radar but benefit and professionals bloggers are punished/watched.

From a world perspective will the FTC start to reach outside of the US and start telling UK/Asian bloggers how to make their blogs US compliant? While there are a number of bloggers who do this for money/benefit it is their living and should they be disadvantaged by FTC trying to go beyond what Google is trying to enforce with "nofollow" links?

The Lost Press

about 7 years ago

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aidrenegade

Don't know if you noticed but there's a recession on. Many people, including me, are looking to the internet to make extra cash because I don't want to live on benifits - call it pride. Yep, I've got amazon & google adsense links but I'm still waiting for my first google check. 'Buying stuff' through my links isn't my primary concern but with my 'day job' work scarce I'm all for 'every little helps.

To me, the future of the internet is to level the playing field for communication. Already power trippers are trying to control it. Although I think that sites such as child porn content must be activly stamped out, it is up to the individual net surfer to make their own decisions about where they want to spend their money. Right now this is the lifeblood of internet commerce.

Control is a nasty thing power trippers do. Don't let them get away with it because it's always a bunch of power trippers that join together to pass such rules / laws.

about 7 years ago

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selina howells

Call me a sceptic, but is there info on the internet that is not commercial? Anything that makes it onto the top of Google search results is hardly likely to be there naturally in my view.

about 7 years ago

David Iwanow

David Iwanow, SEO Product Manager at Marktplaats.nl

@Selina yes but if there wasnt commercial value in doing it no-one would do it, but there is whole business models built around being #1 on Google.

about 7 years ago

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