The thing about April Fool's Day on the internet is that -- for a period of several days -- it's very difficult to trust the veracity of news items that people send your way. You tend to cast a skeptical eye on things like this Financial Times article, which was the story most often forwarded to my inbox last week.
Regrettably, the story is authentic. It covers regulatory changes the FTC seems intent to move forward with -- changes that deal with bloggers and how they talk about products online. Here's a key quote from the article:
"Revised guidelines on endorsements and testimonials by the Federal Trade Commission, now under review and expected to be adopted, would hold companies liable for untruthful statements made by bloggers and users of social networking sites who receive samples of their products. The guidelines would also hold bloggers liable for the statements they make about products."
I can understand the desire to curb the influence of bloggers who have turned into undisclosed corporate shills. I have been speaking out against that practice for years. I can also understand that certain companies will attempt to game the system when it comes to social media. What I can't understand is why ordinary citizens will have to suffer as a result.
I have been blogging for more than five years. I've been posting comments to review sites and other people's sites for much longer. If, suddenly, I could be sued by the government for offering up a comment about a product I've tried, it is highly unlikely that I'll continue to review products online. If enough people take this stance, we won't be able to turn to one another for product advice. Should I go out to all the review sites and take down my product reviews? The FTC is apparently telling me I could be sued for them.
I reject wholeheartedly that the mere publishing of content on the internet grants an individual some sort of special status that requires regulation on the part of the government. We all discuss products over the backyard fence in real life. Should the fact that these conversations are now taking place on blogs and via other social media make a material difference to the FTC's mandate to protect consumers? I think not.
I also have a major problem with how the guidelines would deal with the following situation: Let's say I go for a walk in the park and there's a street team there handing out samples of sunscreen. Let's further suppose I take one, and the next day I post on my blog that I used the sunscreen, and it also apparently cleared up the dry skin on my elbows. If the FTC has an issue with my suggestion that the sunscreen ought to be used to clear up dry skin, it can sue me. If a lawsuit is filed, the manufacturer and I would be hauled into court as the result of a run-of-the-mill sampling program -- a tactic frequently used by CPG manufacturers to stimulate trial of a product.
Yes, I understand the differences between commercial speech and political speech. Yes, I understand that undisclosed corporate shilling is a problem. Do I think this merits giving the U.S. Government dominion over online product recommendations? Hell, no.