FTC to Regulate Blog Posts?

We are in the middle of a global economic crisis, there are new fears of a North Korean nuclear attack, and accusation of torture & lies are leaking out from our government every other day – yet the Federal Trade Commission seems to think cracking down on the blog economy is a top priority.  With all the bankers banking billions and lead-tainted products coming in from overseas, you’d think there are more important economic behaviors to be regulated & reformed – but the FTC is using its muscle to “fix” the relationship between bloggers and the companies that help them pay their bills.

Disclosure Hypocrisy

At the center of the proposal is language requiring bloggers to disclose any financial incentives they may have from a post they’ve written.  So I ask you – when was the last time a politician announced his support or opposition to a bill results from the interests of their own financial supporters?  Obviously, such rules don’t and won’t apply to the governing class…  (I support sponsorship badges for our politicians, think NASCAR!)

If the regulations follow through, bloggers could be required to announce any sort of money they receive from a company whose product they discuss.

Industry Self-regulation

The thing is, Google already downranks paid blog posts… sort of.  Google is most interested in ignoring paid posts designed to pass pagerank – not necessarily paid posts designed to generate sales.

  • Paid Posts- Paid posts are paid when they’re written.  Some businesses make deals with bloggers who enjoy high traffic – and they’ll literally pay $100 or $150 for a single page promoting their product.  This can be kind of shady, especially if the blogger hasn’t really used the product and they’re just repeating what they’ve been told to say.
  • Affiliates – Affiliates can be just as biased, they get paid per sale.  Naturally, that creates an incentive to talk up a product, but sort of in the same way a salesman would at any store you visit.  The big difference is that the affiliate isn’t wearing the company uniform or a badge proclaiming “Salesperson of the month”

Being “outed” can be embarassing, so bloggers have tended toward full disclosure as a generic best standard.  It is usually better to be up front and honest about who is paying you – denying it and getting caught can disrupt a blogger’s reputation a lot more than being blunt about trying to sell a product.

Enforce this

Of course, there is absolutely no way the FTC can afford to send blog spies out to every corner of the internet in order to track every commercial blog post.  Even Google, who uses cutting-edge automation to filter the web, makes mistakes on legit domains and overlooks some shady ones.  They work to improve their systems, but they’ve got a huge multi-billion dollar corporation designed for just this purpose.

As such, the FTC will never be able to completely and objectively enforce these regulations.  Never ever.

What will probably happen is that they’ll keep collecting complains from angry customers until they find a company they can rip into to “prove a point” or “set an example.”

The bloggers themselves won’t be on the hook for government intervention, they’ll only be affected indirectly as the companies who paid them have to re-analyze their strategies.

Whats a Blogger to Do?

Its not quite time to rush out and edit all your pages with affiliate links on them, but it is a good idea to keep an eye out for new policies and terms from your affiliate programs.

Will I soon be putting disclaimers on my hosting coupons?  (Warning, if you use this host’s coupon to save money, I might make some money too!)  Will that scare away your customers?  Will the incentive be to ignore the regulations and take the hope that you won’t be the unlucky individual to get caught?

The intentions sound nice, but the unintended consequences of this new FTC policy could disrupt online marketing in the short term and create an enforcement nightmare in the long run.  And that’s exactly why I’m not too worried about it.

These are the kinds of rules that sit on the book and collect dust, 99% of people will probably never be affected.

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