The United States Federal Trade Commission, in a rare unanimous vote, handed down a decision that states that bloggers must disclose the details surrounding any endorsements of products.

In a unanimous vote this morning, the US Federal Trade Commission has decided to enact changes to federal code regarding truth in advertising and in product endorsement, including the first such extensions to regulate the activity of bloggers. Acknowledging that bloggers may be individuals who publish their opinions online without compensation, but with a wide audience, the FTC voted to enact new regulations beginning December 1 to compel bloggers to reveal all material connections that may have led them to endorse a product, even if that endorsement honestly reflects how bloggers feel about it.

I can only reflect upon the online flap between Leo LaPorte and Michael Arrington, concerning the Palm Pre phone. It was quite a little verbal scuffle, and anyone who saw it, or heard it, won’t soon forget the exchange between these two.

I never really understood what the problem was; whether Arrington was trying to simply get under Leo’s skin (petty jealousy), or if he really thought there was a problem. The thing is, I, like many others I know, tend to believe that Leo LaPorte is somewhat like the Walter Cronkite of the internet – you simply know he speaks the truth, regardless of the sponsor.

So maybe the impetus comes from something far different. Either way, things are, in the United States, about to change.

The amendments will come in the form of changes to the FTC’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, last amended in 1980. During a public comment period, the FTC acknowledges it received several comments from unnamed citizens arguing that the nature of new online media makes it impossible to draw a distinct dividing line between, say a “blog” and a “publication,” or a “commercial blog” and a “personal blog” (both may include advertising).

But commissioners openly disagreed with what it admitted was a large plurality, if not a majority, of comments: They concluded that the nature of new media does not fuzzify any connection that may exist between a person whose published comment states a product is good, and the manufacturer who may have supplied that person with the product (and perhaps something else) with the expectation that the person would publish an opinion of that product one way or the other.

“For example, a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself,” reads this morning’s public notice of changes to the FTC’s Guides (PDF available here). “In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be ‘endorsements,’ as are postings by participants in network marketing programs.”

The above sections, and the rest of the article, on Betanews,  fully quantifies the changes to those of us who will be speaking about things that we try out – though I believe, by and large, the descriptions given, and opinions expressed, on the internet, are much more honest than many opinions given on other media forms, simply because the written word tends to be more direct by nature.

One thing I am not sure that the FTC takes into the whole picture is that, as far as I am aware, most, if not all, the authors I know would not sacrifice their reputation for any sort of small remuneration that might come from any endorsement, either real or implied. Those who would are in for a short term career, and extremely limited viewership.

That is why, for me, you will see my full and honest opinions, (for example) when Windows 7 gets put on my machine, no matter the fact that I am getting the Windows 7 Ultimate gratis. The point is, before I recommend, or detract from, the final product, it will be because the experience reported will be as if I had gone out to pay the full price for the product.

It is also why, though I am very hard on Microsoft, when they get something right, I am lavish with my praise for it. (Those who disagree might look to my glowing reviews, and sometimes nitpicking, of the Live Essentials programs.)


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