The FTC and Bloggers

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW

They went after funeral homes, they went after identity theft, and now the Federal Trade Commission is going after the most pressing need for consumer protectionism – bloggers.

That's right folks, the Federal Trade Commission has their eye on those unemployed men and women in pajamas, the blogosphere. This past Monday the FTC announced new rules that will govern product endorsements on blogs and other "consumer-generated" media outlets. Specifically, the new rules demand that bloggers disclose if they receive cash or in-kind payments to review a product. So if you are a music blogger, and there are thousands of them, and a record label sent you a record to review, you must reveal that in your blog.

How you reveal this gift is up to you. The FTC makes no specific requirement, only that the disclosure is "clear and conspicuous." New rules will begin on December 1. Failing to inform the public and the FTC may cite you. Ignoring them could lead to fines up to $11,000 per infraction.

Of course, if you are a blogger, every record you review, was given to you by a record company. That's simply the way music is distributed to journalists and bloggers for review.

While I'm all for transparency and accountability, why did the Federal Trade Commission chose to focus on the prime dangers of blogging?

Consider these examples. When your doctor - your trusted advisor - recommends a drug prescription, is she required to reveal her financial relationship with the pharmaceutical company? No.

If a car dealership recommends a body shop for repair, who demands that you know their financial relationship? No one.

To make matters worse, the new rules are not mandatory for all reviewers. If a print magazine like Rolling Stone reviews a record, they are under no obligation to disclose if they received the album for free. That's because the FTC argues that traditional media outlets have a legacy of editorial independence and readers' trust and therefore are not obliged to disclose their gifts.

It would seem that the FTC values a traditional trusted advisor, despite the conflicts of interest, over an unpaid one. But why should doctors, manufacturers, service companies and media outlets be given a free pass while bloggers are held to a different standard?

It's a shame that the FTC chose to start here, ignoring the far more imperative consumer protections that are urgently needed. I expect the blogosphere to respond in kind, with commentaries criticizing these unfair rules. This is not a group that takes things quietly.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.