Report: FTC to go after blogger freebies

Federal Trade Commission plans to start keeping tabs both on bloggers accepting products for free and on the companies giving them away, the AP reports.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read

The Federal Trade Commission is planning to crack down on bloggers who review or promote products while earning freebies or payments, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

This would, for the first time, bring bloggers under FTC guidelines that ban deceptive or unfair business practices.

"New guidelines, expected to be approved late this summer with possible modifications, would clarify that the agency can go after bloggers--as well as the companies that compensate them--for any false claims or failure to disclose conflicts of interest," the article explained.

The rules could be quite strict, even extending to the practice of affiliate links--for example, a music blogger who links to a song on Amazon MP3 or iTunes that earns an affiliate commission in the process.

The practice of free products for bloggers, most of whom are not bound by ethical guidelines that journalists have historically followed, has been making headlines for some time now. Microsoft, for example, created a wave of bad press a few years ago when it gave free Acer laptops preloaded with Windows Vista to several dozen bloggers.

Some companies have sprung up around the whole notion of blogger compensation and giveaways. The AP article mentions some of the marketing companies that have made a business out of offering bloggers incentives--free trips, products, gift certificates, or outright payments--for coverage. One of them, Izea, has been generating controversy in the tech press since it started PayPerPost.

Izea says that it requires bloggers to disclose what they've gotten paid for or what they've received for free. But with the proposed FTC guidelines, if a blogger fails to disclose a freebie or payment, both Izea and the blogger could be held responsible. The FTC could also take issue with the fact that for at least one promotion, Izea has said it avoided including bloggers who would be likely to give the company negative press.

Izea CEO Ted Murphy wrote in a blog post Monday that the company supports stricter FTC regulations for bloggers.

"The companies that should be worried about these changes are those that have no standards and no way to enforce disclosure," Murphy wrote. "We have invested millions of dollars creating systems that allow us to automate transactions and verify standardized disclosure."

But some bloggers, the AP article mentioned, are concerned that the FTC's efforts could go too far, possibly generating probes into posts that were written without any compensation, and possibly leading bloggers to post with more restraint. And some believe it would be better if bloggers created their own standards based on niche and industry.

Then there's this: does the FTC realize just how many small-time bloggers are out there? Championing business ethics is a worthy goal, but, um, good luck getting much done when there are hundreds of thousands of blogs out there and new ones popping up more or less daily. Ever heard of the expression "herding cats?"

This post was updated at 11:37 a.m. PT with comment from Izea.