In what must be one of the weirdest laws to affect the blogosphere, Slashdot is reporting that the European Union is sponsoring a new “directive” (their fancy name for a law, as far as I can tell) that will make it illegal for companies to knowingly try to deceive customers about the origin of a weblog or other advertisement.
The original article is from the UK-based Times Online and it reports:
“Hotels, restaurants and online shops that post glowing reviews about themselves under false identities could face criminal prosecution under new rules that come into force next year. Businesses which write fake blog entries or create whole wesbites purporting to be from customers will fall foul of a European directive banning them from ‘falsely representing oneself as a consumer’.”
It’s not the first time I have come to recognize that the EU is more forward-thinking in terms of protecting consumers than we are here in the United States, but I have to ask, is this law really necessary? What are the implications for bloggers who allow comments to be added to their blogs too?
Here’s a scenario I can imagine playing out…
I write about a product that I like on my weblog, perhaps the new Seagate (NYSE: STX) Mirra that I’ve been testing. My review is favorable, but there are a couple of specifics that I dislike. A few days later, I get a comment from “Mike Smith” who contests the point I make about the Mirra being, say, noisy, and explains that all external backup drives are inherently noisy and that, in fact, the Mirra is quieter than the competition.
But Mike doesn’t bother to disclose that he’s a Seagate employee. (note: this is just a fictional example, I don’t mean to impinge Seagate’s track record of being very blog friendly, including its long-term sponsorship of my friend Robert Scoble‘s PodTech show)
Now, under the new EU directive, would I be liable as the blog hosting that false comment?
I sure hope not, because if so, then we’re all going to have to jump headlong into user identity verification and that’s going to create an extraordinary dampening factor on the interaction we already have in the blogosphere, the free-wheeling discussion that ranges across tens, dozens, and sometimes hundreds of different blogs.
Want to comment on this piece? Sure, can you show me your National Identity Card first and verify your place of employment, please?
Worse, we get into further wrinkles with this, because now you come to my site and want to add a comment, but you forget to disclose that your Dad is Dave Wickersham, who just happens to be president and CEO of Seagate. Is that something where you should have, by EU law, disclosed in your comment related to Seagate? What if we’re talking about Western Digital (NYSE: WDC), though, a competitor of Seagate? And what if you’re actually Wickersham’s daughter-in-law? Or great-niece? Or housecleaner’s son’s best friend?
This is the same issue I have with the big blogosphere buzzword of disclosure. It sounds really good until you start to think about the nuances of the situation. At what level does disclosure become a violation of privacy? At what point does disclosure or transparency become overbearing and impossible?
Oh, and in that spirit, would I, as an independent blogger, need to also disclose – by European Union Directive – that Seagate gave me the Mirra as a review unit and don’t expect me to send it back when I’m done with the review? Ethically, yeah, that’s something I should mention in a review, but by law?
Smartmobs has a quick take on this topic too, in which they state: “Sock puppets and sybils beware, using a new EU consumer protection law fake bloggers soon to be ‘named and shamed’.” Yes, fake blogs are duplicitous and ultimately aren’t very good marketing, at least not yet, but I have to ask again, do we really need a law?
And, more importantly, what are the implications for bloggers anyway?