Can the Blogosphere Be Regulated?

The Federal Trade Commission seems to think so. A fresh set of proposed Federal Trade Commission guidelines, if approved this summer, would potentially allow the agency to police the relationship between bloggers and advertisers, forcing bloggers to disclose any revenue, gifts, or freebies they have received for publishing consumer reviews of goods and services. These guidelines mark the FTC’s first systemic foray into regulating the blogosphere, a Herculean task if ever there was one. An example, excerpted from the aforementioned guidelines:

Example 7: A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. The readers of his blog are unlikely to expect that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact would likely materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge.

As you can see, the proposed guidelines target bloggers who are paid in hard-money and soft-money (free demo copies of products, etc.) compensation to blog on certain topics by sponsors, which are connected to the bloggers through media advertising companies such as Pay Per Post. Bloggers critical of sponsored “monetized blogging,” such as those at TechCrunch, label the phenomenon an online version of radio payola, and BusinessWeek goes as far as saying that sponsored blogging is “Polluting the Blogosphere.” Enter the FTC to save the day, right?

Well, the blogging community has historically defied traditional regulation (which helps explain why its growth was so explosive), and according to this AP article, “Bloggers complain that with FTC oversight, they’d be too worried about innocent posts getting them in trouble, and they say they might simply quit or post less frequently.” I would add that these are not “complaints” but rather legitimate concerns about overly heavy-handed federal retribution towards the very people we have to thank for the blogging revolution in the first place. Marketers have additionally voiced similar concerns.

This move could potentially spell bad news for the blogging community, which up until now has enjoyed a measure of immunity from the regulatory standards imposed on traditional news outlets. But as the line between professional journalism and independent reportage begins to blur, increasing numbers of voices in the blogosphere have been calling for more uniform disclosure agreements among themselves. And seeing as how the general blogging community is generally suspicious of itself and especially wary of posters who accept compensation for their work, the system will generally work to scrutinize, discredit, and stigmatize bloggers that choose to accept compensation for reviews without a prominent disclosure statement. Since policing the series of tubes for nondisclosure would be akin to trying to catch a waterfall in a paper cup – a daunting task even for Big Brother – perhaps self-mediated blogger honesty and transparency may be, in fact, the best policy.