FTC to Probe Bloggers Who Take Money to Hawk Stuff

Last Updated Jul 3, 2009 6:11 PM EDT

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is drawing up guidelines that will allow it to investigate bloggers who promote products, as well as the companies that pay them to do so, when such conflicts of interest are not disclosed to readers. The agency also will investigate any false claims by the bloggers that result from this practice.

According to an Associated Press report, "Many bloggers have accepted perks such as free laptops, trips to Europe, $500 gift cards or even thousands of dollars for a 200-word post."

There will be predictable howls of outrage from those who resent any kind of government oversight of what they write or how they make money. But I imagine the FTC will focus only on large-scale, egregious offenders, the kinds of false prophets who shamelessly hawk products as if they were providing independent reviews, when they actually are being secretly compensated to do so.

Blogging is a new enough media form that the kinds of industry standards and ethics that have long existed (if not always followed) in traditional media have yet to emerge. Once the FTC implements its oversight role for blogs, it may want to take a look at the social media space. As we've noted over the past few months, several "pay per Tweet" scandals have developed over Twitter, although the micro-blogging community has so far proved fairly good at self-policing these corrupt practices.

I've always been puzzled by the psychology of taking money secretly to promote something publicly. All one has to do is disclose the relationship with the company paying you to do so, and you're in the clear. Everyone has conflicts-of-interest, some are financial, others emotional, others religious or academic or political. The solution isn't to censor yourself, it's disclosure.

Previous posts on conflicts of interests and product promotion at Twitter:

New Pay Per Tweet Scheme a Threat to Twitter?
Pay Per Tweet Scandal in U.S.; Secret Sponsor Deal in U.K.
Disclosure: So far, nobody has offered me a free laptop, a trip to Europe, a $500 gift card, or thousands of dollars to promote anything, so I must be doing something right -- or wrong, depending on your point-of-view. If someone does, however, you'll be the first to know.)

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.