Federal Trade Commission and the Food Blog Code of Ethics

by foodethics

A lot has happened since we launched the Food Blog Code of Ethics. Discussions about blogging ethics have sprung up across the Internet, prompting bloggers of all stripes to voice their opinions. Some claimed the blogosphere was the Wild West and thrived on lawlessness, others suggested a need for regulations.

Blogging Gets Its Hand Slapped

But the biggest change came in October 2009, when the Federal Trade Commission decided it was time to update its rules regarding endorsements and testimonials, a document written long before online content existed, let alone required regulation. With print magazines and newspapers failing left and right and untraditional marketing opportunities springing up on blogs and in social media, the Federal Trade Commission realized it was time to create clear guidelines for businesses looking to establish relationships with online publishers.

“Endorsements in print ads or on television are clear, because it is obviously the company’s advertisement,’’ says Mary Engle, the FTC’s associate director of consumer protection. “It became very clear to us when we began our regular periodic review of guides in 2007 that because of all the social media going on we’d need to update them.’’

According to the FTC’s updated stance: bloggers, Twitterers and other online reviewers are now required to disclose their “material connection” with corporate sponsors or advertisers.  As of December 1, 2009, businesses are now legally required to disclose gifts or payments to bloggers and other online writers, to subsidize posts dedicated to their product(s). The FTC also updated its endorsement and testimonial rules, now holding celebrity endorsers liable for false statements about a product. Each infringement of these rules will cost the guilty party (i.e. the business) $11,000.

Some bloggers rejoiced at the announcement by the FTC, while others openly dismissed the ruling as heavy-handed and unfair. Some bloggers feared prosecution while others adapted their practice of accepting gifts and payments to include a small disclaimer at the end or beginning of their post to protect themselves. Meanwhile, other bloggers refuse to share any information about gifts and payments with their readers.

It seems that bloggers agree to disagree: there’s a wide range of what’s reasonable when it comes to ethics and rules within online publishing.

What About FBCE?

While we continue to Tweet when new information comes up, we haven’t been hammering away at this blog because it was initially intended as a statement, and it quickly took on a life of it’s own. Here’s a quick summary of what’s gone on since the last time we posted:

  • When we started the discussion with our blog, we offered to create a badge that offered readers a visual statement that showed that their blog upheld five basic ethical standards in blogging, a long, carefully thought out statement that blogger “Chef John” of Food Wishes quickly summed up quite simply:

Food Blogger Code of Ethics:

*As re-interpreted by Chef John of Food Wishes

1. Don’t Be an Asshole

2. Don’t Make Shit Up

3. Ask Before You Use Someone Else’s Stuff

4. Dude, Karma

  • We received a lot of concerned responses from people that believed that a badge was dangerous, that it would insinuate that any blog that didn’t have it wasn’t ethical. That wasn’t our intention. Instead, we hoped that the badge would be a simple, voluntary way for bloggers to say, “hey, I follow these guidelines;” but it seemed fraught. In the end, we decided against creating a badge, feeling that the conversation about ethics was ultimately the more important point.
  • In the Spring, the UK Guardian wrote about the Food Blog Code of Ethics. Later the Guardian admitted that their tone about our Code was a bit “smug,” if not full of “snorts of derision” for the idea that British food bloggers be required to have such equally high standards. And then, in the summer, The Guardian suggested that perhaps they were in fact in need of a structured conversation between PR companies and food bloggers in order to come up with some sort of guidelines. How the British food blogging panel panned out still remains uncertain.
  • In July of 2009, a group called Blog With Integrity, created a site that gave bloggers a badge that communicated a commitment to specific business practices of full disclosure, attribution and upholding journalistic standards. While this group of four bloggers encourage bloggers to contact them via email with suggestions and comments, for better or for worse, they haven’t opened their site up to users interested in engaging in a public debate (via comments). Instead, the women behind Blog With Integrity speak about the subject at conferences and with the  press.
  • We weighed in on the topic of ethics in the blogging world with KPCC and the LA Times. Along the way—both on this site via comments and in the real world–we’ve been applauded for taking a stand by bloggers, restaurant professionals and food writers. We’ve also been called “crotchety” by one blogger for believing in a code of ethics, and “fascists” by another angry commenter. All in all, by putting this site together and taking part in a discussion that turned into something much bigger and more philosophical than we ever expected, the feedback we’ve received has been enlightening. To say the least.

We’re happy to have been part of the discussion. It’s one that continues to evolve as blogging becomes increasingly more popular and businesses learn new ways to reach out to customers through online marketing. We look forward to seeing how this debate changes in 2010 and will weigh in again when it does.