The Federal Trade Commission released new rules this week about how bloggers and other users of social media must disclose their personal stake in any products or companies they’re reviewing, and any gifts or compensation they may have received. The Wall Street Journal sums it up like this (more details in the full article):
Consumers who use their money to buy a product and then praise it on a personal blog or Internet message board won’t be subject to the guidelines, the FTC stressed. But bloggers who endorse a company, product or service because they are paid by the firm or by a third party would have to come clean about the relationship.
PC World also has a quick guide to the new rules, and what they mean to all users of blogs and other social networking technologies.
Now, my personal hunch is that we won’t see a lot of enforcement at the lower-traffic end of the blogosphere. But for the higher traffic sites, there could in fact be scrutiny…and I’m still undecided about whether that’s a bad thing.
On the one hand, I’ve always felt that blogs that present themselves in any sort of journalistic light should hold themselves to the ethical standards of journalism, including the essential separation of the editorial and business sides. You don’t make decisions about what articles to write based on what your advertisers would like to see. You fully disclose if you’ve received a free sample of a product that you’re reviewing. You run the story even if it makes your business partners look bad.
On the other hand, the new rules seem unenforcable, and I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with these particular ethics being legislated. Could it reasonably slip my mind that Mickey’s Travel Company gave me some free swag last year, and forget to disclose it when I’m writing a review about how great their services are? Does the average Facebook user know what level of gifts need to be disclosed? Does the t-shirt I picked up at some vendor’s booth at a conference really count?
But in general, I would hope that this could be a positive step forward for the Disney Digerati. I’d like to know whether someone received any compensation or gifts related to the product or service they’re reviewing. I’d like to know whether someone is in any way employed by the company whose praises they’re singing. It helps me to understand what biases might (or might not) be in play. Sometimes it’s very clear when a blog (or podcast, or facebook presence) is supported by company sponsorship; sometimes it’s not.
I can’t help but wonder what interesting conversations are going on behind the scenes right now, and what we might learn in December when the new rules come into play. If all business relationships are already fully disclosed, it will only further showcase the strength of the independant Disney fan community. And if not? Well, that could be interesting too.