Laws protecting consumers are generally good. In fact, it is hard to remember a law that was intended to protect consumers yet failed. However, there are always exceptions, and in this case, the Federal Trade Commission’s new regulations on bloggers proved to be the exception. On Oct. 5, the FTC passed new rules forcing bloggers to disclose any material connections to companies for products they review. At first glance, it sounds like a good regulation, and it could be with a little more refining. Right now, however, it is evident that something is very wrong.
The new regulations are a good idea; more consumers turn to online reviews and testimonials for advice on buying a company’s product. It is good to regulate bloggers who mislead consumers with inflated reviews. However, the FTC needs to understand that a line must be drawn. Unfortunately, the FTC has crossed that line so egregiously that it is infringing upon the First Amendment right of free speech. Here are some of the more remarkable and frankly unsettling, regulations of the FTC’s restrictions on bloggers.
First, there are the tabs on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Celebrities or other prominent figures cannot be friends with a product page if that company has given any sort of gift without disclosing the relationship. Here is an example: lets say the New University loves my writing so much that they give me a free New University wardrobe and I, consequently or inconsequently, add New University on Facebook. Well then I could be fined up to 11 thousand dollars. Yes, 11 grand for a Facebook friendship. Either I am one influential person, or the regulations are whack. This sort of regulation applies to Twitter as well. Under the same scenario as above, if I then go on Twitter and post, “The New U just gave me a new wardrobe. It is so comfy and stylish! Thanks!” Another possible 11 thousand dollars. Of course, this sort of thing will never apply to me, but it will apply to celebrities or big time individual bloggers. Peter Feld of BrandChannel is already predicting a scandal in upcoming years of some celebrity or blogging site accidentally stepping on regulations by “endorsing” a product and being hit with a fine.
Secondly, there is no threshold of what constitutes as a gift. Any little thing can be a gift — a free t-shirt, a dinner — essentially anything that is free. The language of the regulation leaves room for some interpretation. Granted, I do not think the FTC will persecute some random blogger who receives a free t-shirt from a college newspaper and brags about it.
That being said, this kind of loose language is practically asking for some sort of controversy in upcoming years. What is wrong with adding a general threshold of what constitutes as a gift or a bribe? Here is an example: Any item given with a net worth of $250 or more constitutes as a material connection. It is as easy as that. That way, small individual bloggers are protected and, more importantly, larger sites are given a better standard of what is right or wrong and can be held accountable more appropriately.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some good things about these new regulations. And, in the FTC’s defense, the new regulations will likely act as a guideline of ethics that won’t be prosecuted; however, if that is the case, they should not have made the regulations in the first place. The concept was truly a good one. The execution, however, was more than flawed. Not only do the new regulations beckon some sort of scandal or controversy with celebrities (or New University writers) but the regulations don’t even effectively regulate larger sites from skewing reviews. It should be interesting to see what is sure to be a scandal prone future.
Neil Thakor is a second-year political science major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.