American ad law fuzzy on disclosure rules, US behind EU on regulations


The Federal Trade Commission recently began requiring amateur bloggers to disclose their relationship with product manufacturers (or service providers) whose products they’re reviewing. Lack of disclosure could result in fines up to $11,000.image
Web 2.0 has given the opportunity to everyone with a PC and an Internet connection to speak their minds and share their reviews, opinions and suggestions with everyone.

Some websites are entirely based on user reviews and ratings (, while others heavily rely on those elements to enhance the info-commerce experience of their users (

We all know that today’s marketing campaigns always involve “social influencers,” meaning the top 10 or 20 bloggers active in a specific niche. These bloggers will be targeted by companies trying to circulate positive (hopefully) reviews of their products by way of leveraging leading bloggers in a particular niche.

This practice ignites a very dangerous situation: many bloggers receive gifts, freebies and benefits that may, at the very least, cloud their judgment. The FTC is not saying that this is wrong (bloggers are not journalists after all!), but it is saying that gifts be fully disclosed to the audience. As a matter of fact, a free high-end smartphone could be sold for 500 euro, meaning that behind a test unit you can keep, there is a concealed payment to sweeten the review.

Being a blogger here in Italy, I have attended many events for bloggers and social influencers, I’ve witnessed great indulgence in giving tech bloggers “test units” of expensive gadgets. These handouts are never intended to be returned to the manufacturer. It has to be said that this practice is pretty common in Italy even among professional journalists, who can often keep test samples and enjoy particularly glitzy press events.image

The current situation here in Italy sees the vast majority of bloggers concealing their relationship with the company they are writing about. Readers can only rely on their intuition and the blogger’s reputation as they decide if the blogger’s review is genuine or spoiled.

The main problem with the FTC rule is the thin and blurred line that divides established websites from “citizen bloggers.” The FTC exonerates the former group from the new rule. Moreover it is not clear both how granular disclosures have to be. Is it enough for a “once and for all” disclosure in the About Me page? Or is a per-post statement needed? Intereting as well are constraints that may obstruct a full application of the rule (just think about Twitter’s 140-character limit).

This means that if you are a tech geek reviewing a digital camera that Canon sent you for free you have to write a full disclosure if the review is for your blog or But if you write the very same review about the very same free Canon digital camera for Consumer Reports ,this relationship can legally remain concealed.

I believe that ethics impose disclosure to the audience of a relationship that may interfere with the review’s judgment, and I am ok with the government regulating disclosure. But I also strongly believe that this very same principles apply to mainstream media and professional bloggers, who should follow the same guidelines.

It would be of great interest to hear the official position of the European Union on this. Perhaps on such a new matter it would be a great opportunity to create a uniform regulation before the single countries create their own.

Editor’s note: In December, 2007 the European Commission issued a directive requiring member states to ban unfair advertising practices. These practices included “advertorials,” or the use of content that promotes a product without making clear that the promotion has been influenced by free products or services. According to the Commission’swebsite , most member states have complied. The Guardian published this overview briefly comparing the EU and US laws.

Flickr image from user pierofix