Third on the headlines today on TechMeme (perhaps the leading tech news aggregator) is this headline: “An Apology To Our Readers,” a heart-felt piece from TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington disclosing that a TechCrunch intern had, on at least two occasions, demanded computers from start-ups as compensation for writing favorable blog posts about them on the highly influential site. The intern was immediately suspended and, when the allegation was confirmed, terminated. Arrington made no excuses for Daniel Brusilovsky on account of his age (he’s under 18). You can read Daniel’s response here.
If this incident demonstrates anything, it’s just how essential it is for a site like TechCrunch to, as Arrington promised his readers in closing, “maintain complete transparency with you on how we operate, even when it isn’t such an easy thing to do.” Arrington went so far as to have “deleted all content created by this person on our blogs”—indeed, “every word written by this person on the TechCrunch network,” which presumably includes comments.
One might take from this the lesson that the press, as it evolves from the newspaper model towards something blog-ier but still hard to pin down precisely, can police itself pretty darn well. Alas, the FTC has taken a much dimmer view of the ability of reputational incentives to discipline the influence that might be exerted by “blogola” payments (cash or in-kind) on editorial discretion and journalistic creation. Last October, the FTC updated its “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” to provide that bloggers should disclose any direct financial interest in subjects they write about if they wish to avoid being subject to an FTC enforcement action—even though no such endorsement is required of traditional journalists, as Adam noted. The best response to this was probably this splendid open letter from Randall Rothenberg, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, as Adam noted here.
TechCrunch goes out of their way to avoid even the appearance of bias—just as traditional publications do, if not more so! So why should they be subject to special FTC scrutiny? Of course, if a site sets forth a policy about endorsements, it would clearly be held to that promise by the FTC and any violation for breaking that promise could be considered an “unfair” or “deceptive” trade practice under the FTC’s existing statutory authority.
If the FTC really wanted to encourage other sites to follow the lead of TechCrunch, they could encourage (but not bully) others into developing some kind of a seal program like that developed by TrustE that would lay out core principles for how sites handle blogola and product endorsements. If a site wanted to advertise its commitment to these principles, it could display the seal on its site—and be held to that commitment by the FTC (with a self-regulatory group perhaps providing additional enforcement or auditing). If a site chose not to do so, users would be able to see that, too.
A very robust version of this idea could take the next step and use a machine-readable tag so that any site choosing to participate in a “trust seal” program wouldn’t have to rely on just putting this icon on its page, but could instead simply include, in the packets sent to users who visit the page, the tag that corresponds to either (a) the URL for its own endorsement policy or (b) the URL for the for that “trust seal” seal program the site participates in. That tag could then be “read” by a plug-in or a tool built directly into the browser that would either link to the disclosure page or display an appropriate “trust” icon for the site next to the address bar, just as HTTPS sites using SSL encryption get a special green block or safe-looking lock next to their URL. (This is precisely the kind of interface the Mozilla Foundation is thinking about implementing its Firefox browser for websites’ privacy policies.) When the user clicks on that icon, they could get more information about the site’s policies or how the trust seal program works.
The important thing about such a concept, however implemented, is that there could be multiple seal programs out there, each of which could do the hard work of figuring out what appropriate disclosure policies could be and how to make them work in an evolving medium. Given TechCrunch’s leadership in this area, I’d say the TechCrunch seal program could be a gold standard in the online news and commentary business.
This is the kind of innovation that could occur in this space (and others, like privacy) if users really care as much about blogola as the FTC thinks they do—and if the FTC encouraged innovation in disclosure and self-regulation instead of trying to write proscriptive rules to cover all possible situations. (In fairness to the FTC, what I’m proposing works well for “first party” content authored by a site’s employees but there’s a separate problem of how to deal with “third party” content like blog comments on someone else’s site. If a company sends its employees to post comments or reviews praising its products on another blog or, say, on Amazon’s product reviews, I don’t really have a problem with expecting that company to require that its employees disclose their affiliation when they post elsewhere because there probably isn’t a better way to deal with this issue.)
For now, I’m content that sites like TechCrunch are already actively guarding their reputation with prompt disciplinary action such as what Arrington described today. The more attention paid to responsible self-regulation like this, the more other sites will be prompted to follow TechCrunch’s lead—and keep innovating in how to build systems and interfaces that assure user trust.