Some Random Thoughts on “Sponsored Blogging”

by on June 24, 2009 · 15 comments

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.]

  • andrew_feinberg

    Adam — I am well aware of the difference between journalistic ethical traditions and issues of interstate commerce that are appropriate for some sort of regulatory regime.

    You ask why we must “federalize” the process of transparency. I would respond that we already have.

    While you could say this is a first amendment issue, I would argue that giving and receiving compensation for advertising, advertorials and sponsored posts is CONDUCT, not speech. And this conduct clearly can give rise to deceptive and unfair trade practices — practices that are clearly under the purview of the FTC.

    At what point will regulatory involvement become “wise?” I know you'd say very seldom. And I tend to agree. But we already have a regulatory scheme in place, and it only makes sense that we use the same tools against deceptive and predatory marketing online that we do offline.

    Cheers

  • http://siliconANGLE.com/ John Furrier

    Hey I'm all for clearing up the noise with signal and quality that is why I started SiliconAngle.com group blog of experts. It is precisely for this reason. To have detailed conversations with pros. Keep this conversation going it's important and relevant.

    For me the issue is “You can't regulate what you don't understand.”

    The bigger picture is that legit publishers need to monetize their offerings in some way and google adsense isn't cutting it.. a new standard has to show up. Everyone can't go out of business (including the newspapers and quality online publishers).

    The other issue is understanding the difference between a reporting organization and a community. Both have reporting capability but they are mutually exclusive in terms of their methods of publishing but not in their quality. Communities of peers and colleagues (like my new blog SiliconAngle) can provide high quality analysis and opinion and in some cases news but we are not a news organization per se.

    I see two standards emerging as prototypes online: 1) All Things D – professional reporting of news first with analysis and opinion second; more general ; and 2) SiliconAngle.com – a community that provides professional opinion, analysis first, and news second; more specialized.

    Your thoughts?

  • jefferyw

    Sponsored blog is just a another name for infomercial. All infomercials should be regulated where ever they are distributed.

  • andrew_feinberg

    Just saw this reply, John. I think Kara and Walt are the models for the future of journalism online, and communities like SiliconAngle (of which I am proud contribute) would do well to at least adopt some aspects of their news operations in order to give context to the expert opinion and commentary that make the community special. If not by hiring professional journalists (disclosure: I have been accused of being a journalist before) than by syndicating “straight news” content from other “wire” services, whether AP, AFP (my favorite) or some specialized tech wire news service (someone should start this).

  • andrew_feinberg

    Just saw this reply, John. I think Kara and Walt are the models for the future of journalism online, and communities like SiliconAngle (of which I am proud contribute) would do well to at least adopt some aspects of their news operations in order to give context to the expert opinion and commentary that make the community special. If not by hiring professional journalists (disclosure: I have been accused of being a journalist before) than by syndicating “straight news” content from other “wire” services, whether AP, AFP (my favorite) or some specialized tech wire news service (someone should start this).

  • andrew_feinberg

    Just saw this reply, John. I think Kara and Walt are the models for the future of journalism online, and communities like SiliconAngle (of which I am proud contribute) would do well to at least adopt some aspects of their news operations in order to give context to the expert opinion and commentary that make the community special. If not by hiring professional journalists (disclosure: I have been accused of being a journalist before) than by syndicating “straight news” content from other “wire” services, whether AP, AFP (my favorite) or some specialized tech wire news service (someone should start this).

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