Over at SiliconAngle, my friend Andrew Feinberg has posted an interesting column defending federal oversight of "sponsored blogging," or blogging that might be in some way be tied to a financial interest. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is now looking into that matter and threatening to bring the blogosphere under the thumb of federal regulators. In his essay, "Why the FTC is Absolutely, 100 Percent Right on Sponsored Blogging," Andrew argues that:
The Federal Trade Commission wants to keep an eye out for unscrupulous behavior by corporations and media. This is their job. They could leave well enough alone for fear of being accused of meddling with the internet, but they recognize that as technology changes, the rules that govern the relationship between marketers and consumers must be made to fit those changes.
This is not always easy. The Federal Communications Commission has had a rulemaking open on embedded advertising (product placement) in children's programming for some time now. It is well know that it's unlawful to market directly to children during certain times, and on certain programs. But FCC efforts to adapt the rules have been stymied by a cumbersome process and a lack of authority (the FCC may only regulate content on broadcast television).
On the other hand, the Federal Trade Commission has much broader authority. And their job is to keep things fair.
I responded in the comments to his piece as follows:
Andrew... You are confusing what belongs in the realm of journalistic ethics with that which should be elevated to the realm of federal regulatory regimes. I think we would agree that writers and reporters -- for both old and new media outlets -- should have certain standards of transparency, but why must we "federalize" that process and have unelected bureaucrats at the regulatory agencies slapping fines on people for not doing so. That's a (dangerous) bridge too far in my opinion.
Moreover, at the margins of this debate lie some sticky First Amendment issues. Must I always reveal sources of income before I can speak on a matter? Again, it might be the right thing to do as an industry best practice, but let's not criminalize the failure to do so.
Again, Andrew is right that online journalists and blogger need to get more serious about online ethics and sensible best practices if they want to be taken seriously and retain credibility. But precisely because the web allows for greater information flows, transparency, and independent "checks-and-balances" by third parties, I don't think federal regulatory involvement is wise at this time.
Sorry Andrew, you are wrong on this one!
[BTW, Mark Hopkins, also of SiliconAngle, posted a great round-up the other day of what's being said about this issue online.]