EDITORIAL: America’s Internet police

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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You may have won $10 million dollars!!! Or not, but the same federal agency that can’t stop those dishonest sweepstakes mailings wants the right to supervise everything bloggers, Facebookers, tweeters and practically anyone else writes on the Internet starting in December. You see, bad, bad regular people may write something nice about puppy kibble after nefarious corporate goons pay them off with a free bag of dog food. Consumers must be protected from such trickery.

The plans of the Federal Trade Commission don’t bother us newspaper folks none because we’re exempt. Our book reviewers can keep right on taking free books, and our music reviewers can wallow in a torrent of freebie music downloads until their iPods explode. But if you readers do the same thing and fail to disclose the full details of your “financial relationship” with a “marketer” before you tweet, both you and the book publisher may have broken the law, resulting in fines of more than $10,000.

The rules are arcane, but their essence is simple. If a regular person says something online that an FTC official finds fishy, the agency can investigate. To do that, the rules say, feds will have to check out individuals’ finances, examine what they’ve received in the mail and review what they’ve posted on the Internet for evidence of corporate taint.

Obvious civil liberties concerns aside, the FTC leadership must be delusional. Even Google tracks only a small fraction of the torrent of new posts, comments, videos, podcasts and other online chatter added to the Internet every day. Now a bunch of Washington bureaucrats think they are going to become the police in a neighborhood so big no one can measure it. Perhaps the company that did the last complete inventory of sand on public beaches will be available to help.

Which brings up that irritating relic of 1791: the First Amendment. How is the FTC going to define the difference between unregulated journalists at real media companies and the bloggers who need federal supervision? Journalists get fired and start blogs. Bloggers get hired by media companies. Bloggers join together and start their own media companies. Bloggers appear on TV and write for the dead-tree editions of newspapers. Media companies buy blogs. Media companies launch blogs. Such a vast gray area is an opportunity for plenty of mischief.

Indeed, it is exactly on this gray area that the FTC says it will focus. The more commercial, popular, long-standing and successful a blogger or tweeter is, the more likely he will fall under the new rules. In other words, the more like the mainstream media an online person is, the more likely the FTC will want to regulate him. That makes perfect sense.

If the four FTC commissioners who voted for this fiasco had any sense, they would skip the inevitable lawsuits and go back to their real jobs.

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