FTC targets bloggers, ignores newspapers

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is preparing to launch new guidelines that will legally force disclosure on blog posts that involve “compensation” to the blogger writing it.

The guidelines, coming primarily in response to paid posting, are said to be needed in an era when consumers increasingly turn to blogs for information about the goods and services they buy. “The presumption is that we can apply traditional advertising principles like transparency and accountability to social media the same way as it would apply to traditional media,” said a representative for the FTC.

While in principle it’s a sound idea, and one that most people wouldn’t oppose, it’s the application that is anything but just, because it makes no attempt to strictly enforce the same rules on mainstream media outlets, and specifically newspapers, despite the suggestion from the FTC that those outlets are currently operating under higher standards.

Take this example from BusinessWeek:

Readers of Adventures in Babywearing, a blog for parents, got an up-close look at the Ergo, a $135 embroidered baby carrier in a shade called “organic blue” in a May 14 post on the site…”The Ergo truly is now my first choice for long-term wear as well as nursing and doing chores around the house,” she wrote.

Money can’t buy that kind of advertising for Maui (Hawaii)-based ERGObaby. Or can it? [The blogger] wrote in her blog [that] the company sent the carrier free, along with a matching pouch and backpack.

The problem here is that mainstream media journalists receive goods for free on a regular basis, and only rarely is any relationship disclosed. There may be a line (mostly) between directly paid content and editorial in newspapers, but there is a wealth of other ways companies court attention from the mainstream media. It also doesn’t have to be goods: how regularly are journalists offered free trips to conferences and events, and at such events they might receive free goods, accommodation, food and even entertainment? It doesn’t even have to be that extreme: a free lunch or drinks could all be counted as indirect compensation by this criteria. So why is it that bloggers receiving similar deals require Government intervention?

Perhaps there is a hidden agenda. Maybe this isn’t really about disclosure, but more about protecting perks for mainstream media journalists exclusively? Any attempt to regulate the blogosphere without seeking to strictly enforce the same rules on the mainstream media can only be seen as an attack on new media in favor of the old media. More change we can believe in from the Obama Administration.