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Your Blog: An Asset Worth Protecting? (Sponsored Post)

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BloggerShield_Logo_RGB While many journalists and other types of media professionals have had the opportunity to secure insurance protection for their profession, bloggers have been ignored…until now. BloggerShield™, a brand new liability insurance product created exclusively for bloggers, is now available.

Unlike journalists, whose content often includes more reporting and less personal opinion, bloggers are typically valued for their point of view or their own personal brand. Often times, bloggers have a dedicated following, become social influencers, and are relied upon for information, insights, or even product promotions and reviews. With this power to influence, bloggers become vulnerable to an array of liability exposures as well as the potential backlash of critics.

Any reader may go so far as to use legal recourse to pause, halt, or counter one’s blogging activities. A blogger may experience this in the form of having a claim or lawsuit brought against them for defamation, slander, copyright infringement, or privacy violation. Regardless of the circumstances and the validity of a claim or lawsuit, bloggers are still faced with managing any legal action taken against them and keeping their blog and personal assets protected in the process. In addition, many bloggers are still unclear as to what their liability exposures are until it’s too late.

Let’s take a look at a few recent cases in which bloggers have found themselves facing litigation:

Woman Awarded $338,000 in Damages for Defamation as a Result of Anonymous Submissions

On July 11, 2013, jurors awarded Sarah Jones $338,000 in damages for defamation against gossip website thedirty.com. This high profile case arose out of two anonymous submissions posted in 2009 that claimed that Jones, a former cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals, had sex with every Bengals player and was afflicted with sexually transmitted diseases.

Nik Richie, the operator for the website, argued that he was protected under the Federal Communications Decency Act which provides immunity to website operators for content that comes from third parties. However, Jones argued that the protections did not apply as thedirty.com admitted to screening and adding comments before posting third party submissions. The jury agreed with Jones, finding that Richie acted with malice or reckless disregard in posting the submissions.

The posts were unrelated to Jones’ previous guilty plea to charges that she had sex with an underage former student. For more on the case, prior history can be found at Jones v. Dirty World Entm’t Recordings, LLC, 766 F. Supp. 2d 828 (E.D. Ky. 2011).

Blog Article Results in Libel Suit

On July 19, the District of Columbia Superior Court denied a motion to dismiss brought under DC’s 2010 Anti-SLAPP statute.  Separate but similar motions were filed by defendants National Review and the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute after climate scientist Michael Mann brought a libel suit over an article published last summer on the organization’s blog, Openmarket.org.

Mann accused the publication of defaming him by accusing him of fraud in his research and by drawing comparisons between Penn State’s investigations into his research and the school’s previous investigations of assistant football coach and convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky.

In denying the motions, Judge Natalia Combs Greene found that the statements in the blog had crossed the line from protected opinion to factual assertions. Accordingly, Judge Greene wrote, “there is a strong probability that the NR Defendants disregarded the falsity of their statements and did so with reckless disregard.”

For more on this story, the case has been filed in the District of Columbia Superior Court under the docket number 2012 CA 0008263 B.

Anonymous Blogger Compelled to Identify Himself for Making Defamatory Statements

A New York trial court recently directed Google Inc. to identify an anonymous blogger who had been criticizing New York attorney Frederick Shulman on blogspot.com, a Google owned company.  In his affirmation before New York Supreme Court, Shulman argued that Google should be compelled pursuant to the New York rules governing pre-action discovery to disclose the identity of the blogger posting defamatory statements to stopfrederickschulman.blogspot.com and frederickschulmancrookedattorney.com. Shulman further argued that “in the era of internet savvy individuals . . . the damage continues to mount with each day these web blogs continue to remain visible to the public.”

Justice Debra A. James found that Shulman had sufficiently shown a meritorious cause of action for defamation and the necessity of the information. Accordingly, the Court ordered Google, barring objections, to disclose reasonably available creation IP addresses as well as the name(s) and email addresses(es) used to register the blogs.

Counsel for Schulman has since disclosed that Google has cooperated with the order and that ongoing litigation is expected.

For more on this story, see In re The Matter of Schulman, Frederick Esq. v. The Go Daddy Group, Inc., et. al. at New York County, Index Number 155629/13.

So what can bloggers do to stay protected from lawsuit?

Most bloggers have some idea as to standard blogging best practices, i.e., using proper disclosures, correctly citing sources, etc. However, in many cases, this is simply not enough to stay protected from the consequences of legal action.

With the formation of BloggerShield™, a new insurance coverage created specifically for bloggers, protection is now available to bloggers. BloggerShield™ is a form of liability insurance designed to help mitigate loss and cover legal fees associated with issues arising out of a claim or lawsuit for one’s blogging activities. To learn more about blog liability exposures and BloggerShield™ Insurance, please visit www.bloggershield.com or call 888-228-7988.

Solving Crime with Social Media [Infographic]

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Planning on organizing a big heist today? Well, be sure not to announce it on Twitter or Facebook! Ok, sure, that sounds silly. But, you’d be amazed at how effectively law enforcement is able to use social media to gather evidence, establish probable cause, or identify suspects. This nifty infographic from Backgroundcheck.org sheds some light on how the law is tapping into the social web.

Solving Crime with Social Media
Compiled By: BackgroundCheck.org

For Internet trolls, Freedom of Speech is not Freedom from Accountability

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anonymity on the internet Every few years, when a well-known and roundly reviled Internet personality is outed by investigative bloggers, a vocal minority attacks the unmasking as a violation of free speech.

The argument, trotted out most recently by defenders of Michael “Violentacrez” Brutsch upon his 4,700-word public shaming by Gawker as “the Biggest Troll on the Web,” boils down to this: “No one deserves privacy, but we deserve anonymity.”

As a highly active Reddit user, Brutsch spent years sharing salacious pictures of underage girls as “jailbait,” voyeuristic photos of women in public and much, much worse, including pictures of dead teenagers. Now that his unsettling hobbies have cost him his job, supporters are claiming that the outing by Gawker’s Adrian Chen is a threat to free speech across Reddit, which bills itself as “the front page of the Internet.”

This idea, that bloggers are somehow threatening free speech by outing anonymous Internet users, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment. It is not an impenetrable shield for anonymity, nor does it make any American immune to accountability for our actions.

The First Amendment protects us from our government, but rarely from each other. In other words, the same law that gives Brutsch the right to say despicable things also gives Chen the right to call him out for it.

In fairness, being confused about the Constitution’s protection of free speech is understandable. The First Amendment is so short, it could be reprinted verbatim in two tweets, and yet it is quite possibly the most complex and carefully parsed law in the land.

The First Amendment is a protection granted by the government against the government. But outside journalistic circles, it typically gets simplified down to the idea that we can say whatever we want without repercussions. Of course we can’t.

Free speech always carries implications far beyond the legal system. It can get you ostracized by your friends, families and peers, not to mention making it difficult to find a job or seek public office. That’s always been the case, but it used to apply only in rare cases of whistleblowers and political dissidents. Today, the Internet has opened the danger of accountability to millions who live in a digital universe where being anonymous is the norm instead of the exception.

In times gone by, anonymous authors and snarky gossip columnists made the decision in advance to hide their identity specifically because of the content they were creating.

Today, that model has been flipped. Many Internet users begin within the comforting cloak of anonymity and then, seduced by the lack of consequences for their actions, start saying things that they would never say in public. Some devolve further into trolls, clutching that anonymity cloak as if it made them invisible. When it is suddenly stripped away, they realize just how precarious of a situation they’ve made for themselves.

Their only hope at that point is to recast themselves martyrs of free speech. They see their impending accountability and use it to terrify their legion of anonymous Internet peers. “Today, they came for me. Tomorrow, will they come for YOU?”

That’s an argument that occasionally has legs. When a record label sues an Internet service provider for the names of its users in hopes of finding an illegal downloader, we all get nervous. Companies rarely have the right to know about what we each do in the privacy of our own homes, and all of us are right to be concerned.

But in the case of Internet trolls like Brutsch, we’re not talking about being exposed for our private actions. We’re talking about being exposed for our public actions. We’re talking about accountability.

And it should be noted that Brutsch did relatively little to hide his identity. He attended public Reddit meetups and put himself up for questioning in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” Q&A session. Brutsch’s wife and son are reportedly active on the site, as well, and have linked their accounts to his. His voice even appears on podcasts. Chen didn’t subpoena anyone to learn who Brutsch was or rifle through the man’s garbage; he just put a few obvious clues together once he got the right tip.

When word got out that Chen would be publicly identifying Brutsch, some Reddit moderators retaliated against Gawker by removing links to the popular blog from the areas of Reddit that they curate. The Politics Subreddit moderators went so far as to say they were punishing Gawker for its “serious lack of ethics and integrity.”

These moderators are well within their rights to evict Gawker. However, in the process, they send a pretty hypocritical message: “You suppress our guy and we’ll suppress you.” Since when do Redditors wage their battles by limiting access to information?

Reduced traffic is a consequence Gawker and Chen were likely prepared for. There’s no law guaranteeing them fair treatment on Reddit, just as there is no law guaranteeing outed trolls like Brutsch fair treatment anywhere else.

Photo Credit: Bigstock

Disclose This: How the FTC Has Left Bloggers and Publishers Dazed and Confused

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Many bloggers and other content creators do their best to disclose to their audiences when they have received money, gifts, or other special perks that supports the content they make available for others to enjoy for free. Despite these efforts, most bloggers and publishers may still not be following the FTC’s disclosure rules. Even for people who actually know about these guidelines, there’s still great confusion over what they’re supposed to disclose, and exactly how to do it. (See FTC’s New Dot Com Disclosures: What Every Online Marketer Needs to Know to learn more about the FTC requirements and upcoming changes.)

Even long-time veterans in our industry are left scratching their heads over where things are with the FTC. New Media Expo’s CEO and Co-Founder Rick Calvert is one of the thought leaders in our industry who I thought really understood this issue from both the perspective of the marketer and the consumer, and who was also willing to come out on the record over what has been a highly sensitive subject.

Grant: What do you think of the FTC’s requirements for disclosure of material relationships for guest bloggers and other outside content contributors?

Rick: I do think they are appropriate, I think disclosure is good. I think that as a publisher, and any type of content creator, you should always disclose if there is some potential conflict of interest with any type of relationship with somebody who is posting content; and so that definitely applies to guest bloggers.

For example, we’ll let people who exhibit at our show post a guest blog on our blog. But, we disclose that they are an exhibitor, we tell you who they are, and we also require that their post not be commercial – so it’s not promoting their product.

Now other people could have a different standard than that. It depends on what the audience that post is meant for. Some people want those types of product presentations, since that’s what that audience is looking for. But again, if somebody paid for that, or there is some sort of business transaction happening, you definitely should be disclosing that relationship.

Grant: Or, if it’s something someone received for free (or at a significantly discounted rate wouldn’t normally be made available to them?)

Rick: Oh sure, something for free – free travel, a gift card to Starbucks or an Amazon, that sort of thing.

Grant: Many of the most widely read and subscribed to blogs in online marketing, like New Media Expo, will naturally feature guest bloggers as speakers at their events. The FTC’s Press Officer informed me that those are also likely fall under business relationships, which should be clearly disclosed.

Rick: I really thought that was interesting to learn about, since I don’t think the FTC has ever actually included that information anywhere before that you need to disclose if somebody is speaking at your conference. Again, we have no problem with that and we do anyway, but that just seemed a little strange that the FTC would even think that far, and that deep.

Grant: Do you think the FTC has some issues with how they communicate their regulations to the online marketing industry?

Rick: I think the answer to that is, does the average blogger know about these regulations?

Grant: How about even veteran thought leaders in this space? Take the example of Search Engine Land’s Editor-in-Chief, Danny Sullivan. He himself has reported on the FTC’s activities for the search space for over a decade, and recently published an open letter to the FTC on search engine disclosure compliance – and even he was completely unaware (mistaken, even) on the FTC’s guest blogger disclosure guidelines.

Rick: It’s pretty indicative that if Danny Sullivan doesn’t know what these regulations are, I think it’s pretty safe to say that overwhelming majority, the vast overwhelming majority, doesn’t either. I don’t know how to describe the significance of that any stronger. The vast majority of people in our industry – social media, blogging – have no clue what these FTC regulations are and how they apply to us.

Grant: Do you think that most people who are entrenched in the online media and marketing ecosystem, who’ve started out in it and have been in it for so long – may not have the same understanding of FTC compliance laws versus the more traditional media industries?

Rick: I would assume that people like Huffington Post, AOL, Forbes – traditional media companies that are involved in social media – should know what those regulations are because they comply with those things in their normal, traditional media business. But I would bet you the average blogger wouldn’t. I could name dozens and dozens and dozens of conferences in our space – technology conferences, online marketing conferences, search conferences, social media conferences – they probably have no idea of those regulations or how they apply to them.

Grant: From my experiences as a long time blogger who’s been a freelancer or done guest posts for many different online marketing publications, I can say there’s so much confusion with publishers on what they believe the FTC disclosure guidelines are. You could even get completely opposite opinions from one publisher or another on why they think they don’t apply to them.

Rick: I wouldn’t fault any of those people either; it’s the FTC who has done this horrible job of making people aware of these regulations.

Here’s just for an example: There are 3.9 million active mom blogs in the United States alone. That’s one of these spaces where this is prevalent, where people are concerned about disclosure. It’s where a lot of people write posts either as guest blogger or on their own blog; or they will let a company write a guest post; or they will ghostwrite a guest post. What they don’t always disclose is if there is some sort of business relationship going on. A lot of times it’s just for free products, or a nice free trip for the blogger. But a lot of them are not disclosed. As big as that space is, it’s only just one example of how prevalent this is across our industry, where people need to be concerned about disclosure.

Grant: The FTC says the larger issue here is consumer transparency and building trust, so consumers can feel as though they can safely do business online, and so businesses can play fairly. I think most people who follow these guidelines can agree that the FTC isn’t intentionally trying to cause confusion, although there are certainly unscrupulous people in our industry who will try to take advantage of that confusion.

Rick: Right, because people who are doing things like that, don’t care. They either are knowingly violating those guidelines or they don’t care what those guidelines are and nothing the FTC does is going to change what they do.

Grant: How much of the problem do you think is how the FTC can do a better job of catching criminals, versus better educating the public?

Rick: If the FTC finds out about somebody who is breaking the rules – maybe blatantly breaking the rules with forethought and doesn’t care and so they prosecute them, and it ends up with a fine most likely, that gets in the news, but that doesn’t really educate anybody.  It might scare a couple people, probably not, but it doesn’t really do anything to address the problem.

Grant: Clearly the FTC doesn’t have the resources to monitor the entire Web, with millions of bloggers and publisher sites. Where do you think the maturity of our industry is today to support independent watchdog groups – across social, search, blogging, etcetera – that can do the kind of monitoring with the expertise behind it that is trusted by both the industry and consumers alike for what they find and report – and can have the ear of both mainstream media and government?

Rick: I think there could be a place and it’s probably a good business opportunity for somebody. That’s probably the best solution, but New Media already has its own solution. Someone can start a watchdog blog where people can report something that they think might be a violation, and then you could review it and say, “Well to us, this is in compliance or this is not in compliance, and this is exactly what wasn’t and this is what they have to do to make it in compliance…” and if the FTC wanted to weigh in on that – it would be amazing if the FTC did that, but I doubt they every would.

Grant: So some people reading this are going to ask, why hasn’t there been some kind of watchdog association yet?

Rick: Well, there have been several people who tried a blogging association. We tried when we started BlogWorld and realized pretty quickly there is no critical mass to support that. For video, you know any type of video association there is, is only going to deal with traditional media entities, not independent publishers in any way.

This is something we always have to remind ourselves being inside the bubble of new media, is this space is still so new, and we really are still in the Wild West. We are, I think, years away from any sort of association type of governing body to lay down ethical practices and standards that anybody is going to agree on.

Grant: The FTC says in their documents that they apply the same legal standard for online media and offline media, or new media and traditional media.

Rick: But do they really? If that was the case, then people should be able to do things just like infomercials on television or on radio. I believe in having high standards for disclosure and transparency, but what I don’t want to have happen is the government impose that standard on us in New Media and not impose it on traditional media, and end up creating an unfair playing field.

Grant: What do you think that those of us can do in the New Media industry for improving trust and consumer transparency?

Rick: I think it is important for us as digital content creators to try and set a higher standard for ourselves; We have to remember why we came to the Web in the first place, I think it is incumbent upon us to create that higher standard and support it – however we do it is up to all of us.

To learn more about FTC guidelines as they pertain to online marketers, be sure to read the full report, Pay Me To Trust You: An Online Marketer’s Guide to the FTC’s Revised Guides for Disclosures of Endorsements in Social Media.”

FTC’s New Dot Com Disclosures: What Every Online Marketer Needs to Know

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Many of you may already know that the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires content creators to provide disclosures where there could be hidden interests or unspoken biases related to recommendations. Well, the FTC is now re-evaluating its 12-year-old online advertising disclosure guidelines, also known as “Dot Com Disclosures.” Any decision the FTC reaches is expected to have a profound impact on the online marketing industry with respect to how required disclosures, or non-disclosures, of material relationships and connections may affect consumer trust and fair competition in business.

A Little History First

Way back in 2000 (sort of like the Cro-Magnon era of the Internet), the FTC released it’s first major report geared for online markers titled, Dot Com Disclosures – Information About Online Advertising. The report was a response to the proliferation of shopping and advertising online, where it was understood that an increased likelihood of fraud and deception would take place that, if not properly regulated, “may dampen consumer confidence in the e-marketplace.”

The purpose of the report was to set guidance for advertisers with online disclosures – to prevent an online advertisement from being misleading by requiring such disclosures to be “clear and conspicuous” to the consumer.

Why the FTC felt the need to revise their Dot Com Disclosures

Obviously, the digital landscape has undergone a seismic transformation since 2000. The FTC‘s Press Officer, Elizabeth “Betsy” Lordan, has acknowledged they need to keep up with emerging technologies and new channels of communications for online marketing and e-commerce. However, it’s important for online marketers to understand that the fundamental legal principles had back in 2000 still haven’t changed.

On May 30, 2012, the FTC hosted a one-day public workshop to consider the need for new guidance concerning advertising and privacy disclosures in today’s online and mobile environments. The workshop addressed online disclosure challenges for enterprises with consumers and the public at large, including methods for making clear and conspicuous disclosures in online media.

From May 30th to July 11th, 2012, the FTC staff accepted public feedback following that workshop, including from its online comment form. The FTC also made all records and transcripts of their workshop available on their website.

Why we Still Need Disclosure Guides

Online media and marketing is proliferating, and so is spending. More media and marketing efforts are being geared for online; and the glut of content and new technology platforms can make it increasingly likely for consumers to be misled and confused about material relationships by businesses that can affect their judgment; and in negative circumstances, become victims of deception. This is what erodes trust by consumers in the e-marketplace, which erodes fair competition in the market and ends up hurting most businesses.

The FTC’s own public information website, The Federal Register, explains how having the guides offer a degree of necessary protection for consumers and businesses alike, built around trust of the message and the messenger:

“To the extent that consumers’ willingness to trust social media depends on the ability of those media to retain their credibility as reliable sources of information, application of the general principles embodied in the Guides presumably would have a beneficial, not detrimental, effect.”

Why is it Important to Disclose Endorsements Online?

Endorsements factor into our decisions to buy products, especially by people and brands we are influenced by. When practicing marketing and commerce, the FTC mandates that all content being shared with an audience of existing and/or potential consumers “clearly and conspicuously” include a disclosure of any relationships with other parties, when a reasonable consumer would be influenced by in their engagement.

“If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed… If you disclose the relationship clearly and conspicuously on your site, readers can decide how much weight to give your endorsement.”

An “endorsement” of this kind falls under the label of being an advertisement – i.e., commercial speech. Commercial speech has fewer protections under the U.S. law than free speech, including the right of anonymity.

The FTC does not necessarily treat endorsements as being content-specific. It does not matter if the marketer says that their content was not done as an explicit testimonial or review of anything. What the FTC says matters with deciding what’s an endorsement is the message that consumers receive.

“The Guides have always defined ‘‘endorsements’’ by focusing on the message consumers take from the speech at issue. Indeed, this focus on consumer takeaway is completely consistent with the approach the Commission uses to determine whether a practice is deceptive, and thus in violation of the FTC Act.”

What online marketers still need help with about disclosures of endorsements

The FTC put out its own “FTC Facts” help document for businesses: “The FTC’s Revised Endorsement Guides: What People are Asking.” The document provided a number of familiar examples and scenarios that are helpful to online marketers to better distinguish between what the FTC considers to be commercial speech and truth in advertising, subject to their disclosure guidelines. Yet despite these efforts by the FTC, many online marketers don’t feel like they adequately know what they should be disclosing.

Continual rapid advances in the online media and marketing ecosystem have blurred the lines for marketers and the FTC alike with seeing eye-to-eye on several key areas:

  • What is free speech and what is commercial speech
  • What is unbiased information and what are advertisements
  • Confusing labels over who is an “endorser” or “advertiser”
  • What constitutes a “material relationship” that requires disclosure
  • New tools and channels of communication, some with strict character and other limitations
  • Increasing use of social channels to develop both paid and non-monetary marketing relationships with influential endorsers

Many online marketers today, arguably the vast majority, fail to properly disclose their material relationships in their own online media – be it published on their own hosted sites or on partnership sites. While most of these individuals and organizations operate with no intention to deceive or violate FTC law otherwise, it has caused a great deal of consternation in the industry – both for those who don’t feel they have the guidance and support that they need, and for those skeptical of information shared online and by their peers regarding these regulations.

After doing extensive research and interviews across several areas of the online marketing industry – including search, social, and video – I’ve reached this conclusion: What appears to suffer from the greatest confusion and non-compliance are 1) blogger-publisher relationships and 2) consumer-generated reviews of products. Contributing greatly to the problem is a lack of industry standards and self-regulation over disclosure guidelines, and a failure of effective communication by the FTC with online marketers in both these areas.

Blogger-publisher relationships

The FTC considers any material relationship between bloggers and advertisers as a requirement for clear and conspicuous disclosure. Publishers also fall under the category of “advertisers” when their publication engages consumers in commercial transactions as an intended result of their exposure to the bloggers’ content.

Consumer-generated reviews

The FTC considers consumer-generated reviews made possible through free products provided to them by the manufacturer as commercial speech, and subject to the same disclosure of endorsement guidelines as other advertising.

Take this example below, which comes right from the FTC business guide: The FTC treats consumers who receive products to try out and give public, positive reviews of as “endorsements” subject to FTC disclosure guidelines.

“Assume now that the consumer joins a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to do so. If she receives a free bag of the new dog food through this program, her positive review would be considered an endorsement under the Guides.”

What Online Marketers Can (and Should) Do

The first step that all online marketers need to look at is what is within their own means to do. Here are some recommendations:

  1. Self-regulate: The FTC explains that advertisers need to have reasonable programs in place to train and monitor members of their network. CMP.LY has developed an automated disclosure monitoring service that works in conjunction with its disclosure solution to provide reporting on both the inclusion and omission of required disclosures within an advertiser’s advocate or affiliate networks. (Important note: While there are some bloggers who like to use fun disclosure icons as a friendly way of being transparent with consumers, the FTC does require there to be an actual text description of their material relationships.)
  2. Send the FTC your feedback: Questions about the Dot Com Disclosures and Endorsement Guidelines can always be submitted to the FTC’s email address: endorsements@ftc.gov. The FTC has promised to address the most common questions in future FAQs.
  3. Send the FTC your complaints: FTC’s Press Officer Betsy Lordan says the FTC considers complaints from consumers, complaints from competitors, and the results of its own internal monitoring of various industries. To file a complaint or get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. You can also watch this video, How to File a Complaint, at ftc.gov/video to learn more.
  4. Learn more from the FTC: Online marketers and social media enthusiasts should read the FTC’s Dot Com Disclosures and Revised Endorsement Guides – both of which speak directly to truth in advertising principles with Internet media. The FTC’s revised guides offer more than 35 examples of how they apply in practical settings for online marketing The FTC also has produced to-the-point video clips discussing some of the issues on marketers’ minds.
  5. Learn from the legal pros: The Practicing Law Institute (PLI) features an on-demand web program, “Hot Topics in Advertising Law 2012,” which covers FTC regulatory issues and competitor issues around these documents, along with related legal issues involving social media and online marketing. (For disclosure, I’ve received media passes in the past to cover PLI events for industry publications.)

Time for Online Marketers to Get an FTC Education

The FTC’s revised policy on Dot Com Disclosures will directly affect many online marketers’ business activities. Online marketers should treat it as an opportunity to shape future public policy and practice better self-regulation in their respective industries, and build back consumer trust that they can turn into sustainable and profitable business.

Learn More – Free Report

Today with the help of New Media Expo, I am making available for free to the public a special report, Pay Me To Trust You: An Online Marketer’s Guide to the FTC’s Revised Guides for Disclosures of Endorsements in Social Media. The report is meant to serve as an easy-to-follow, condensed overview of FTC disclosure guidelines around endorsements in online media, with an understanding of the important issues and questions online marketers have.

Contents include:

  • The FTC’s guidance on disclosure methods and understanding endorsements in online media
  • The FTC’s review for changes and the challenges to be faced, and;
  • How online marketers may affect positive change with FTC compliance and self-regulation.

What online markers will gain from this report

This report is based on the premise that when online marketers possess an understanding of these FTC guidelines, they will benefit in the following ways:

  • Greatly reduce or eliminate the legal risk by practicing better FTC compliance
  • Achieve better customer relationships from a better understanding of consumer expectations for transparency and disclosure of relationships, and;
  • Be empowered to act against unfair and deceptive business practices in online media by their competitors.

Read Pay Me To Trust You: An Online Marketer’s Guide to the FTC’s Revised Guides for Disclosures of Endorsements in Social Media to learn more.

Digital Hatfields and McCoys: America’s Need for Better Judges

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Every day, judges have to deal with cases involving technology they don’t understand. This is simply a fact of life. However, with the rise of cases involving the Internet, we absolutely need judges who better understand how this technology works.

The average age of our Supreme Court justices in the United States is 66, and this number is on the low side since two of the nine justices sitting on the court were appointed in the last three years. Supreme Court justices are appointed for life; they hold their position until they resign, retire, or die unless they are impeached.

And what of other courts? According to a 2010 study by ProPublica as reported here, “About 12 percent of the nation’s 1,200 sitting federal district and circuit judges are 80 years or older[…]Eleven federal judges over the age of 90 are hearing cases — compared with four just 20 years ago[…] The share of octogenarians and nonagenarians on the federal bench has doubled in the past 20 years. The demographics of the federal bench have no analogue on the state courts, where judges mostly occupy their office for a term of fixed years and generally have mandatory retirement ages, often in their 60s or 70s.”

Why is this important? As a blogger, podcaster, web TV producer, or other kind of digital content creator, why should you care about the age of judges in the United States?

Digital Hatfields and McCoys

If you’re like me, you’ve become engrossed in History‘s recent mini-series about the Hatfields and McCoys. This legendary feud between families started with a little bad blood about events happening during and after the Civil War, and the major incident causing the feud to escalate was a dispute over a pig in Hatfield possession that the McCoy family claimed belonged to them. From there, things really escalated, with the families continually fighting, suing one another, and even taking the law into their own hands. It got out of hand.

All because of a pig.

I mention this because the Internet seems to be a breeding ground for digital Hatfields and McCoys. Bloggers, podcasters, commenters, and others online are very concerned with their rights to say what they want to say. But just because you legally may have the right to say something doesn’t mean you should. Online arguments have a way of escalating very quickly, just likes the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys did in the 1800s. Too often, people on both sides resort to fighting dirty, even when the original argument was over something as stupid as a pig.

And beyond that, many Internet users do not understand laws regarding free speech. Just because you’re allowed to voice your opinions does not mean you’re allowed to threaten someone or insinuate that your opinions are facts. You can and probably will be sued if you make a habit of doing these things.

The problem is that you can also be sued and punished for writing posts that do fall under the protection of free speech, simply because the judge doesn’t understand how the Internet works.

Aaron “Worthing” Walker versus Brett Kimberlin

To see how this can easily effect digital content creators, one needs to look no further than the case of Aaron Walker (previously blogging under the pen name of Aaron Worthing, according to Popehat) and convicted Speedway Bomber Brett Kimberlin. Aaron wrote about what happened (supported with court documents, video evidence, and other facts) here, which I highly recommend checking out so you understand the background of the story.

The story is rather complicated but according to The Blaze and other sources, Kimberlin and his supporters have been attacking bloggers (like Walker) who write about him with lawsuits, threats, and more. He’s filed over 100 lawsuits to date. Walker and his wife both lost their jobs due to Kimberlin and his allies harassing their employers.  Another political  blogger “Patterico” was “swatted”.

(Edited to add: Patterico’s real name is Patrick Frey whose day job happens to be working as an assistant District Attorney in Los Angeles. – police were sent to his home after someone (allegedly from Kimberlin’s camp) placed a hoax phone call to the LA police department claiming to be Frey. Posing as Frey the caller confesses to shooting and killing his wife. This resulted in the SWAT team being dispatched to Frey’s home with guns drawn. Frey was handcuffed. His wife and children were woke by police officers to verify they were alive and safe. You can read Patterico’s account of this incident here. Did you ever think someone would send the SWAT team to your home over a blog post? – Rick)

Kimberlin was recently granted a “peace order” (which is similar to a restraining order) against Walker claiming his blog posts were harassment and that Walker had incited numerous individuals to make death threats against Kimberly via blog comments and tweets.

I’ll be honest: I personally couldn’t care less about the politics behind this all. Kimberlin’s liberal music, support of the Occupy movement, etc. in relation to his past convictions don’t bother me because, at the end of the day, he served his time. I get why many conservatives and even some liberals don’t like him. But that isn’t what my post is about.

This is about the fact that the judge in Walker’s most recent court appearance clearly does not understand the Internet. Walker was accused of violating this peace order because a blog post he wrote about it was considered “contact” with Kimberlin. Furthermore, the judge overseeing this case, insinuated that Walker is responsible for the death threats Kimberlin has been receiving. Walker was arrested for “inciting,” which is encouraging others to “act in a violent or unlawful way.”

The anti-Kimberlin camp isn’t totally innocent. According to eye witnesses, Walker did not represent himself well in court and the judge became increasingly agitated. Guys and gals, if you have to stand before a judge, get a lawyer.

In addition, those on Walker’s side who resort to anonymous threats to Kimberlin are no better than people on Kimberlin’s side who have threatened Walker or have had others “swatted.” But just like it’s not one Hatfield’s fault that another member of his family shot a McCoy, it’s not Walker’s fault that his supporters took matters into their own hands. They are the people who should be brought to trial, not Walker.

Yet Walker was arrested, simply because the judge did not understand how the Internet works. Kimberlin set up a Google alert so he knows when someone is writing about him. Walker’s post may have popped up, but this clearly does not constitute contact. Has the judge ever used Google alerts? My guess is no.

Walker’s story also inspired others to write about Kimberlin, some very negatively and even in a harassing way (imo), but inspiring action is not the same as encouraging action. If Walker had said, “Hey everyone, send this guy death threats,” that would have been another matter. He didn’t (as far as I can tell).

At the same time, I do think this has gone too far. I refer again to the idea that just because you are legally allowed to do or say something doesn’t mean you should. As deplorable as a person might be, no one, including Kimberlin, deserves to live in fear because they’re getting death threats. We have to be responsible for the things we post online, and if we’re aware that what we write or say is going to cause physical harm to another person (or death threats, which are just a step removed from physical harm), I do think we have the responsibility (morally, if not legally) to edit what we post.

Who has the Power?

Right now, I believe certain people have powerful responsibilities.

First and foremost, Kimberlin needs to stop attacking anyone who writes facts and even opinions about him online. When you do controversial things (both in the past and in the present), some people aren’t going to like you. They have a right and perhaps even a duty to stand up and say why they don’t like you, and suing these people is taking advantage of the legal system. Instead, Kimberlin should spend his time in court against people who actually send him death threats.

Second, if you’re a blogger in the anti-Kimberlin camp, you need to be fair, factual, and professional. Realize that some of your readers are not as mature as you. Do not encourage them to “take up the cause” on your behalf. They aren’t always going to represent you the way you want to be represented. Instead, encourage your readers to do their research and come to their own conclusions about Kimberlin or anyone you don’t like. Present your case and understand that there are two sides to every story.

Lastly, if you’re an America, use your vote to make the judicial system fairer for online content creators. This also applies to people living in other countries with the same  problem. Judges who admit to having no idea how the Internet works should not be involved in Internet-related cases. Term limits or forced retirement is necessary to protect younger generations from rulings by people who don’t understand the latest technology. We need to be a collective voice, demanding that the first amendment is upheld online and that bloggers and other content creators should be treated fairly.

What Does Twitter’s New Censoring Ability Mean To You?

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Like many social networks, Twitter is a very powerful platform for connecting people. While some of us might use it for nothing more than complaining about coworkers or sharing pictures of our lunch, others are using Twitter to take down governments and stop poorly-worded bills from becoming laws.

Yesterday, Twitter announced that it has refined the technology enough to censor tweets in specific areas of the world.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. We all have this knee-jerk reaction to instantly hate anything that even questions our freedom of speech concepts, but before you get mad at Twitter, think about what this could mean for us as content creators and social media users.

Misplaced Anger

I think it’s important to start by understanding that Twitter isn’t going to just start wiping out your tweets willy-nilly. What they’re talking about is being able to block tweets on a country-by-country basis in order to comply with that country’s laws. Currently, Twitter already does censor some tweets that break United States laws – in most cases, that boils down to removing tweets that contain links to child pornography sites.

Some countries have very strict laws about what you can and cannot say publicly. Freedom of speech is not a world-wide civil liberty, unfortunately. Twitter isn’t creating these laws; governments are. I think public anger is a bit misplaced. We should be angry that governments are censoring their people, not angry that Twitter is abiding by these laws.

Some Access is Better than No Access

I won’t argue that censorship is a good thing, but I will argue that Twitter’s new ability to censor on a country-by-country basis is a good thing. Let’s use China as an example, since this is a country where Twitter is currently blocked. If Twitter wants to provide access in China, the company has two options:

  • Censor everything any user from any country says to meet China’s policies.
  • Censor some tweets in China to adhere to policies while leaving these tweets untouched in other parts of the world.

The second option is much better! Could you imagine if everything we said on Twitter was censored by the Chinese government? The third choice, of course, is to simple continue denying access to China so that no one’s tweets were censored to any follower, but I think some access is better than none at all. Even if my followers in China only were able to reader one out of every hundred tweets, that’s better than the situation now. I’d love to connect to new people, even if it was in a very small way.

Now, Twitter is unlikely to actually pursue Chinese operations at the moment, given the country’s fiasco with Google a few years ago, but this is just an extreme example of how it could work in countries with different laws. And a launch in China is certainly not out of the question.

A Commitment to Human Rights

One could argue that Twitter should not censor tweets at all, that they should simply refuse to provide services in any country with strict laws that don’t provide for freedom of speech. I argue that this approach is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

First of all, I don’t think any company that provides non-essential services is going to change the mind of a government power that restricts Internet use. Government in North Korea, for example, has shown the world that it can and will isolate its people. They don’t really given a you-know-what if their people have access to Twitter or not. So by refusing to enter these countries, Twitter isn’t really doing any good in my opinion.

Second, I believe it is important to support the people of a country. They don’t always agree with government policies. Heck, I don’t always agree with my government policies (who does?), but that doesn’t mean moving to another country is a better choice – and some people don’t have this option.

Third, this isn’t always a matter of black and white. For example, I think we can all agree here that spreading links to child pornography should not be protected under “freedom of speech,” and I’m glad Twitter removes those tweets. But from there, you can slope down to lesser and lesser “evils.” Where is the line drawn? Just because something is allowed by law in the United States doesn’t mean that other governments and cultures should have to conform to our standards. For example, pornography is illegal in many countries. Should Twitter boycott these countries the same as they boycott a country that censors tweets with negative opinions about the government?

Censorship for Positive Change?

Many major online companies, including Google, already censor their content in other countries to abide by laws, so this is nothing new. Twitter is just being extremely transparent about things, which I think is commendable. They plan to release information about who and where tweet censorship is being requested.

That could actually be a really positive thing for change in the world. It brings freedom issues to the forefront in people’s minds, both in the country being censored and in countries where people have more liberty to say whatever they want. So, censorship is bad…but Twitter’s move into countries where this is an issue could be good for raising awareness.

Not Without Problems

The concept of semi-censoring tweets is not without its problems.

Will Twitter simply listen to what a government official says, or will it allow tweets that aren’t breaking the law, even if a take-down is ordered? For example, what if the U.S. government decided to censor all the SOPA tweets earlier this month? Those tweets should be protected under the constitution, but if a take-down was ordered, would Twitter simply comply? Given the fast-paced nature of Twitter, the amount of time it would take for a tweeter to challenge something like that would make it a moot point. If tweets about SOPA were reinstated after the bill became a law, for example, it wouldn’t really matter.

And I also worry about misinformation. When someone is only seeing part of the story, ideas and facts can get dangerously warped very quickly. If someone is only see some of my tweets, they might form a very wrong opinion of me. Worse, it allows a government to have a lot of control on the message. If 99% of tweets about your leader are positive, is it because 99% of people actually like this person or because almost all negative tweets were caught and removed by censorship filters.

Thinking About Our Content Differently

I think, as content creators, we should be excited about Twitter’s plans to expand into new countries, even if tweets will be censored. It means new followers, new connections, and new readers/viewers. However, it does mean that we have to think about our content a little differently.

With Twitter’s new ability to censor tweets in specific countries, our messages aren’t going to be seen in the same way by every follower. If you want to reach this new audience, it’s important to make sure that you’re tweeting in a way that allows your messages to be seen, and that might require a little research to learn about laws in other countries.

Let’s Keep Our Eyes on Things

This new power for Twitter does not come without responsibility. Whether we realize it or not, censorship on Twitter has already been happening, but now that it is easier to wipe out tweets in specific countries, I think all of us users need to band together and just…well…keep an eye on things. It’s now much easier for a government – even the United States government – for for Twitter itself to abuse these powers. It’s up to us to ask questions and keep those in charge accountable for the decisions they make.

Here are a few more posts with information and opinions on this topic, which I’ve quickly collected with the help of one of my favorite plugins of all time, Zemanta. Weigh in with your opinion or a link to your post about the topic by leaving comment below.

Why SOPA and PIPA Matter More Today Than They Did Yesterday

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Yesterday, sites like Wikipedia, Reddit, and Craigslist blacked out in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two anti-piracy bills that would cause tons of Internet censorship. Countless blogs also joined the protest, and major sites like Google and Pinterest put up notices about the bills, even though they didn’t shut down completely.

Today, the Internet is, for the most part, back to normal. I’m still seeing a few tweets here and there about SOPA and PIPA,and a few sites are still alerting users/readers, but it’s back to business as usual for most people.

I have to be honest. That scares me.

SOPA and PIPA protests are more important today than they were yesterday. I saw many reports (mostly in mainstream media, like on the news) saying that the SOPA/PIPA protest yesterday was a giant failure. While I don’t believe that’s true, I do think that getting angry on Twitter and Facebook for a day doesn’t really matter. What matters is the follow through.

BlogWorld Expo is a conference for content creators. Last night, we held a Twitter chat to talk about SOPA and PIPA and one of the points brought up by Curtis Silver is that it is our responsibility, as content creators, to make sure this issue continues to stay on people’s minds. Others made similar points and they’re absolutely right – yesterday, several members of Senate pulled their support, but PIPA could still pass next week and SOPA could as well next month. We need to continue to voice our opinions against these bills.

Have you called your state’s elected officials? Tell them that you will not vote for anyone supporting SOPA or PIPA. Even an email or hand-written letter helps get your voice heard. Believe it or not, these politicians do listen to the people they represent because – surprise surprise – they want to get reelected. By saying you won’t vote for them, you’re threatening their jobs.

If you’re a content creator online, don’t let your readers/listeners/viewers forget how important SOPA and PIPA are. And no matter who you are, continue sharing this information on social media. Yesterday was only a battle. Let’s make it our goal to win the war.

Could Facebook Shut Down? Understanding SOPA and PIPA

Author:

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our video explaining what SOPA and PIPA are and why you should care about these bills:

Pass the video on to all of your friends so we can fight SOPA/PIPA together! Even if you aren’t from the United States, these potential laws affect you; they affect every Internet user.

Please head to http://www.blogworld.com/SOPA to find out more about how you can join the fight against SOPA/PIPA and join us on Twitter this Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 at 9 PM EST for #bwechat, where we’ll be talking about these bills and what they mean to you.

25 Brilliant Bloggers Talk about SOPA

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Brilliant Bloggers is a weekly series here at BlogWorld where we look at the best posts from around the web all surrounding a specific topic. Every week, we’ll feature three of the most brilliant bloggers out there, along with a huge list of more resources where you can learn about the topic. You can see more Brilliant Blogger posts or learn how to submit your link for an upcoming edition here.

This Week’s Topic: SOPA

SOPA has been causing a stir in the new media industry since the day it was introduced. I’ve written about why SOPA scares me (and should scare you too), and thanks to domain name owners boycotting GoDaddy, we’ve already made a difference! The bill is still likely to pass, though, so we have more work to do. A group of major players online including Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google have said they’re considering a black out – that’s how big of a deal this is.

For today’s Brilliant Bloggers, I wanted to highlight posts from other bloggers who are also talking about SOPA. This is a super important issue, so if you aren’t familiar with what SOPA is and what it means to you (and to anyone who uses the Internet), take some time to check out these posts.

Advice from Brilliant Bloggers:

How SOPA/PIPA Can Affect You by Jamal Jackson from 1stwebdesigner

First things things first; before you can start reading all the brilliant opinions out there about SOPA, it’s important to understand exactly what SOPA and PIPA are and what they mean for you as a blogger, a social media profession, and even a consumer. This post by Jamal Jackson from 1stwebdesigner is a great place to start, since he breaks down the proposed laws into very easy-to-understand terms. It’s a long post, but trust me: it’s worth reading and understanding this. Everyone online, from those who use it for work every day to those who just log in to check their Facebook occasionally, is affected by SOPA and PIPA. It’s even important if you’re not from the United States. Writes Jamal,

The U.S. government officials and private corporations aren’t only concerned about how these bills will work out in America, they are hoping that they will have the influence to get other nations to follow suit with these acts passing. That means if these acts pass, then the next country this could be coming toward may be yours.

You can find more from Jamal at Five Alarm Interactive and follow him on Twitter @5alarmint.

SOPA, GoDaddy and the Bottom-Up Democracy (or Mob Rule) of the Web by John Paul Titlow at Read Write Web

Once you understand what SOPA is and how it can affect you, check out this post by John Paul Titlow on Read Write Web. He talks about the recent “mob” mentality that helped convince GoDaddy and other companies to stop supporting SOPA – and he takes a closer look as to whether or not this was a good thing. Undoubtedly, GoDaddy’s change of heart was good for those opposing SOPA, but is mob mentality on the Internet potentially harmful? He writes,

To be sure, some of what goes on amongst the Reddit is questionable and not every member of that particular community has their facts straight at all times. But they’re far from the only player in these scenarios, even if they do often provide a solid launch pad for digital protest campaigns. What’s more remarkable is what the architecture of the Web generally, as well as its social tools, are beginning – yes, only beginning – to enable.

Check out the full post on Read Write Web, and then follow John Paul on Twitter @johnpaul. You can also find out more about him at JohnPaulTitlow.com.

Preparedness In a Post-SOPA World by Chris Richardson at WebProNews

One of the most infuriating things about SOPA is that it isn’t going to actually cut down on piracy, which is the whole goal of the bill, according to those supporting it. People are already finding ways to work around the censorship, should the bill pass. In this post, which is one of many great SOPA posts on WebProNews, Chris Richardson posts an entire list of IP addresses that you can use to access some of your favorite sites in case the top-level domains aren’t working anymore. The list isn’t in and of itself as important as actually understanding why this kind of thing pretty much negates the entire point of SOPA and just makes things more difficult to everyone online, whether you’re a pirate or a legitimate business owner. Writes Chris,

Hopefully, the Louis Pasteur quote subtitling this article [ “Fortune favors a prepared mind”] motivates you enough to prepare yourself for a post-SOPA world, one where the Internet, as we know it, is rendered into a smoldering ruin that’s overtly governed by the copyright gatekeepers. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but then again, being prepared for a potentially real future could make the transition to a SOPA-controlled Internet much easier to navigate.

You can find more from Chris by adding him to your circles on Google+.

BONUS BRILLIANT BLOGGER: It’s a very long and in-depth post, but if you have time to read it, Don’t Break the Internet at the Stanford Law Review is one of the best explanations of SOPA out there, in my opinion. Check it out!

Even More Brilliant Advice:

  1. 25 Things You Need To Know About SOPA by David Pegg (@iamdpegg)
  2. Boycotting SOPA Supporters is All or Nothing by Kelly Clay (@kellyhclay)
  3. Coders are Already Finding Ways Around SOPA Censorship by Adam Clark Estes (@adamclarkestes)
  4. Google’s SOPA press stunt: Can we truly hold them liable? by Charlie Osborne (@ZDNetCharlie)
  5. Net Artists Warned Us About SOPA 15 Years Ago by Will Brand (@wrbrand)
  6. No SOPA for You: This Chrome Extension Shows You Who Is Pro-SOPA as You Browse by Adrianne Jeffries (@adrjeffries)
  7. Online Piracy and SOPA: Beware of Unintended Consequences by James Gattuso
  8. Piracy is not a problem; SOPA is not a solution by Terry Hancock (@TerryHancock1)
  9. Public Service Announcement: Writers, Censorship, and SOPA by Melissa Donovan (@melissadonovan)
  10. SOPA: All Your Internets Belong to US by Michael Geist (@mgeist)
  11. SOPA: An Unfair Advantage for GoDaddy, but Reddit and Facebook are Safe by Brad McCarty (@BradMcCarty)
  12. SOPA, Freedom, and the Invisible War by John Biggs (@johnbiggs)
  13. SOPA is the end of us, say bloggers by Tim Mak (@timkmak)
  14. SOPA isn’t the Answer to Our Problems byDaniel Herzig (@techblitznews)
  15. SOPA, Middlemen and Freedom of Art by Mark Birch (@marksbirch)
  16. SOPA’s most frightening flaw is the future it predicts by Omar El Akkad
  17. URGENT: SOPA will Kill Your Mom Blog and WAHM Business by Linsey Knerl (@lknerl)
  18. What Journalists Need to Know about SOPA by Tracie Powell (@tmpowell)
  19. Why is SOPA a big problem for everyone? Just ask DaJaz1.com by Ken Priore (@priorelaw)
  20. Why We Must Stop SOPA by End of the American Dream
  21. “Wow, I had no clue SOPA was such a bad idea…” by Rosie Siman (@rosiesiman)

Did I miss your post or a post by someone you know about SOPA? Unintentional! Help me out by leaving a comment below with the link!

Next Week’s Topic: Pinterest

I’d love to include a link to your post next week – and if you head to the Brilliant Bloggers Schedule, you can see even more upcoming posts. We all have something to learn from one another, so please don’t be shy! Head to the schedule today to learn how to submit your post so I won’t miss it.

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