FTC's Blog Rules Excessive, Ridiculous and Hypocritical

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

The new FTC guidelines requiring bloggers to clearly disclose any "material connection" to an advertiser are a sublimely ridiculous example of government hubris, hypocrisy and overreach.

The rules go into effect Dec. 1, and penalties include $11,000 in fines per violation. The FTC wasn't specific about how disclosures must be communicated but said its decisions would be made on a "case-by-case" basis.

That case-by-case claim is the first of many issues that are wrong with this ruling. In essence, what the FTC is saying is that it has defined the ruling so broadly that it will apply the law selectively at its pleasure. To pretend that politics won't enter this picture at any point would be the height of foolishness. Further, unless this is some sort of attempt to use stimulus (aka taxpayer) dollars to radically increase the number of employees working for the FTC, there is simply no way to police all the blogs in the U.S. (And we don't have the space to get into the fact that this rule is unenforceable on blogs outside the U.S.)

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There are likely to be First Amendment issues with this as well. "If a consumer's speech has been materially influenced by a marketer, it must be disclosed. That speech, the consumer's speech, also must be restricted to their own personal experience," said Joe Chernov, VP-communications for word-of-mouth-marketing firm BzzAgent.

It's one thing for the marketing industry to agree to voluntary guidelines about word-of-mouth practices. It's another thing to claim that the federal government has a right to regulate consumer speech simply because that speech is taking place on a blog.

And that's the most galling thing about this: the double standards and hypocrisy on display. TV, by far the most powerful (yes, still) of the media, is allowed product integration into everything from infotainment to chat shows to scripted programming and, we hate to say it, news. Consumer magazines and newspapers are guilty as well.

We're not necessarily advocating that everyone else be regulated out of fairness -- there's a place in this country yet for personal responsibility. But it seems to us that either the FTC has its priorities mixed up or it has spent a little too much time with social-media gurus and has become convinced that blogs have actually become more powerful than TV, print and radio combined.

Whatever the case, these guidelines are ridiculous, excessive and likely unconstitutional.

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