Social Media – Regulation, Mercan-style

And I know you’re going to think that I’ve come to this late, dear blog snorkellers, but it has come to my attention that the august body that is known as the Federal Trade Commission (Protecting America’s Consumers) has published some new (well, revised, actually) guidelines covering endorsements and testimonials (changes affect testimonial advertisements, bloggers, celebrity endorsements) – click-click away, click-click away, stateside!

Now it seems – to my pale and fevered mind – that the upshot of this is that bloggers are going to have to make it clear if they have been paid to review (or write about generally) products or services. It also appears that this covers not solely hard cash, but also the very products and services that are reviewed, if they have been supplied to the blogger free, gratis and for nowt. If not, they will be punished to the tune of $11k per violation.

(And, credit where credit’s due, I found out about this via a blog that I cited before – take a trip over here. I think you’ll find it quite edifying, in terms of the light it sheds on US PR practice. Unless you’re from the US, in which case, it’s still quite edifying in terms of the debate it foments.)

Anyway, as is my wont, a couple of questions thrown up by the FTC revised guidelines.

1) How, on earth, are they going to enforce these? I read a piece somewhere, written by a lawyer, who compared this to the legislation that brought down Napster, and how Napster users (down to teenagers in their basements, downloading one or two tracks) were sought out and punished. Well – again, to my mind, that’s very different – Napster was one site, and its users could be tracked by their IP addresses. In the case of the blogosphere – well – there’s simply too much of it, isn’t there? If this legislation is to apply – and it must, surely – to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Bebo, private blogs, corporate blogs, comment posts on special interest sites – well, just how is the FTC going to monitor all of it, let alone impose punitive measures?

2) Isn’t this just a step too far? What happened to caveat emptor? If we are going to trust people to surf the net, engage with social media and comment on blogs, surely we should also trust them not to get suckered by advertising masquerading as editorial. Consumers are a fairly media-savvy bunch, aren’t they? They’re not going to buy a product or service just because some blogger, magazine, TV show or celebrity told them to. Are they? (Apart from those who went to Iceland because Kerry Katona told them to. But they deserve all the frozen horror that they get.) 

Bottom line. The FTC is, to all intents and purposes, trying to regulate the internet and, as we know, by the very nature of the internet, this is pretty  nearly impossible. Yes, the internet is in dire need of some regulation (and good spring clean) but it’s not going to get it.

What this regulation will do, however, is further hobble the relationship between brands and traditional media, to the detriment of traditional media. In a well-meaning attempt to protect the consumer from the iniquities of the blogosphere, the FTC has, in fact, created something that the blogosphere will largely ignore and will impact most heavily against an already (arguably) overregulated traditional media sector.

And what impact – if any – will this have on non US-based blogs?

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