Savvy consumers often go online for independent consumer reviews of products and services, scouring through comments from everyday Joes and Janes to help them find a gem or shun a lemon.
What some fail to realize, though, is that such reviews can be tainted: Many bloggers have accepted perks such as free laptops, trips to Europe, $500 gift cards or even thousands of dollars for a 200-word post.
Bloggers vary in how they disclose such freebies, if they do so at all. The practice has grown to the degree that the Federal Trade Commission is paying attention. New guidelines, expected to be approved late this summer with possible modifications, would clarify that the agency can go after bloggers — as well as the companies that compensate them — for any false claims or failure to disclose conflicts of interest.
It would be the first time the FTC tries to patrol systematically what bloggers say and do online. The common practice of posting a graphical ad or a link to an online retailer — and getting commissions for any sales from it — would be enough to trigger oversight.
"If you walk into a department store, you know the (sales) clerk is a clerk," said Rich Cleland, assistant director in the FTC's division of advertising practices. "Online, if you think that somebody is providing you with independent advice and ... they have an economic motive for what they're saying, that's information a consumer should know."
The guidelines also would bring uniformity to a community that has shunned that. As blogging rises in importance and sophistication, it has taken characteristics of community journalism — but without consensus on the types of ethical practices typically found in traditional media.
Journalists who work for newspapers and broadcasters are held accountable by their employers, and they generally cannot receive payments from marketers and must return free products after they finish reviewing them. The blogosphere is quite different.
"Rules are set by the individuals who create the blog," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "Some people will accept payments and free gifts, and some people won't. There's no established norm yet."
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. Between ads on her five blogs and payments from advertisers who want her to review products, Rebecca Empey makes as much as $800 a month, paying the grocery bill for a family of six. She also has received a bird feeder, toys, books and other free goods.
Now the 41-year-old mother of four in New Hartford, N.Y., worries that even a casual mention of an all-natural cold remedy she bought herself would trigger an FTC probe.
"This helped us. This made us feel great. Will I be sued because I didn't hire a scientist to do research?" Empey said. Empey, whose blogs include New York Traveler and Freaky Frugalite, said she discloses compensation arrangements on a page on her blogs or through a "support my sponsor" logo. She said most of her readers understand that she sometimes gets compensated.
"It would always be better for bloggers to self-police," said Robert Cox, president of Media Bloggers Association in New Rochelle, N.Y. "We have laws on the books. They apply to everybody, not just people who write blogs."
Yuli Ziv, who writes a fashion blog from New York, is working on one such effort at self-regulation, helping craft an ethics policy for about 15 Web sites as part of the Style Coalition started in January to help bloggers become more professional.
"It's been an issue, regardless of the FTC," she said. "It's about trust." Existing FTC rules already ban deceptive and unfair business practices. The proposed guidelines aim to clarify the law and for the first time specifically include bloggers, defined loosely as anyone writing a personal journal online.
If the guidelines are approved, bloggers would have to back up claims and disclose if they're being compensated — the FTC doesn't currently plan to specify how. The FTC could order violators to stop and pay restitution to customers, and it could ask the Justice Department to sue for civil penalties.