Bonum Certa Men Certa

The FTC Should Bite AstroTurfers, Not Just Bark at Them

US Capitol



Summary: FTC reiterates threat to AstroTurfing activities, but still fails to police anything based on its newly-ratified rules

THE FTC is one of those publicly-funded institutions that give people the feeling that the government is in control and always protects the collective interests of the citizens. Like the FCC and the Federal Reserve, their use of words is very witty and "Federal" comes to imply that it is purely federal, but in reality the control is reserved by companies like Microsoft and other conflicting interests (people move back and forth between commerce and governance/regulation).



The many complaints to the FCC mean nothing at all unless they are filed at a high volume like hundreds or thousands, based on experience.

Upon filing a complaint against Microsoft AstroTurfing, for instance, the FTC responded with a formal letter, but has not taken any real action. They told us that they expect more similar letters before they take action and mass-mailing of letters is Microsoft's expertise; it hires de facto AstroTurfing agencies like CAGW and ACT to carry out this job. In their terms, this it called "lobbying". Microsoft uses the strategy not only to affect public policy and not just to review products but to also troll opposition. There are many examples that are well documented.

The FTC is once again reciting old news about cracking down on AstroTurfers. Here is the report hosted by Microsoft's 'news' site [1, 2].

The Federal Trade Commission will require bloggers to clearly disclose any freebies or payments they get from companies for reviewing their products.


Our reader Goblin wrote this post in relation to Microsoft, which is currently AstroTurfing in Twitter.

You may remember me reporting a while ago that the FTC were looking into bloggers and their “independent” views which are as a result of freebies or gifts. You may remember that we have exposed these gift receivers before and rightly ask “How much worth can you put into the words of someone receiving gifts?“

In my opinion much pro-proprietary software opinion is based on gifts (or the possibility of recieving them) and since the personal blog is looked at a whole lot differently than a mainstream news outlet, its even more important that the views in a blog are those of honest held belief.

[...]

Anyone found to be not disclosing could be liable for a fine of up to $11,000. This, in my opinion is something which is long overdue. I’ve said before that the personal blog holds alot more weight (IMO) than the PR sheets or mainstream features of the latest hardware/software.


It did not take long for one of Microsoft's potential AstroTurf accounts to react to the above and there is more coverage at TechDirt and Ars Technica.

The FTC has announced new rules governing "consumer-generated" media outlets and product endorsements. Bloggers who fail to disclose their relationships with manufacturers and advertisers face five-digit fines.


Here is the original message from the FTC:

A bunch of folks have been sending in the fact that the FTC has (as was widely expected) approved new rules on "endorsements" or "testimonials," including a section on bloggers or "word-of-mouth marketers."


Some of Microsoft's PR agencies use illegal tactics. Microsoft outsources its AstroTurfing activities, so the FTC should start with these agencies. The stated fine is $11,000 per post, so given what Microsoft does for Vista 7, for instance, Microsoft would theoretically go bankrupt had these rules been applied and truly enforced.

"Working behind the scenes to orchestrate "independent" praise of our technology, and damnation of the enemy's, is a key evangelism function during the Slog. "Independent" analyst's report should be issued, praising your technology and damning the competitors (or ignoring them). "Independent" consultants should write columns and articles, give conference presentations and moderate stacked panels, all on our behalf (and setting them up as experts in the new technology, available for just $200/hour). "Independent" academic sources should be cultivated and quoted (and research money granted). "Independent" courseware providers should start profiting from their early involvement in our technology. Every possible source of leverage should be sought and turned to our advantage."

--Microsoft, internal document [PDF]

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