In May 2000, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a number of guidelines designed to help companies stay in compliance with numerous consumer protection laws as they increased their presence on the then-nascent commercial internet.

The FTC’s Dot Com Disclosures (PDF) document largely explained how existing laws around advertising and disclosure applied in the context of the internet, and provided some specific examples.

A lot has changed in the past ten years. Thanks to the rapid evolution of technology, and the rise of social media and mobile in particular, new concerns about privacy and advertising are emerging all the time.

Matters that seem simple, like disclosure, take on new complexity today. How, for instance, is meaningful disclosure possible in a 140-character tweet?

In an effort to keep up the times, the FTC is looking to revise Dot Com Disclosures and is seeking public comment. Amongst the questions the FTC is seeking input on are:

  • What issues have been raised by online technologies or Internet activities or features that have emerged since the business guide was issued (e.g., mobile marketing, including screen size) that should be addressed in a revised guidance document?
  • What research or other information regarding the online marketplace, online advertising techniques, or consumer online behavior should the staff consider in revising “Dot Com Disclosures”?
  • What guidance in the original “Dot Com Disclosures” document is outdated or unnecessary?
  • What issues relating to disclosures have arisen from such multi-party selling arrangements in Internet commerce as (1) established online sellers providing a platform for other firms to market and sell their products online, (2) website operators being compensated for referring consumers to other Internet sites that offer products and services, and (3) other affiliate marketing arrangements?

While the FTC’s questions are quite open-ended, there is no doubt the agency already has a number of issues on its mind. These include:

  • Web tracking. How users are tracked across the internet is a huge issue. Do Not Track legislation is on the table, and the FTC recently issued its own proposal. If the legal landscape around cookie-based tracking in the UK is any indication, Do Not Track may become a reality in some form even if it’s not really workable.
  • Social media. The FTC has already issued guidelines around social media endorsements, but those looking for a clear understanding of what is going to be problematic and what is okay may have a hard time reading the FTC’s mind.
  • Mobile location tracking. The buzz over the location data collected by the iPhone and Android mobile phones has set the stage for what may turn out to be one of the most heated debates ever about technology and privacy. You can be sure the FTC will be involved.

For obvious reasons, it’s good to see that the FTC is looking to update its guidelines. Most companies want more clarity when it comes to the thorny legal issues new technologies are creating.

At the same time, agencies like the FTC often do more harm than good because their guidelines are not pragmatic, or are unenforceable. As such, one will hope that revisions to the Dot Com Disclosures will focus more on providing making it easy for businesses to operate with comfort online than it will on creating a whole host of flawed ‘rules‘ that make doing business online more challenging for legitimate operators who want to play by the rules.