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Kneale: Hey Feds ... Leave the Blogosphere Alone

The Federal Trade Commission has launched a sweeping crackdown on 50 million bloggers and their hidden ties to makers of products they review.

So why can't I be happy about this?

After all, I declared war on anonymous bloggers over the summer. Called 'em digital dickweeds (pond scum) and dubbed the blogosphere the bitterest realm on earth. (Watch Video Here)

Federal Trade Commission
AP
Federal Trade Commission

Yet, I hate the proposed FTC rules even more than I detest masked bloggers. (We will debate this FTC fiasco today on Power Lunch on CNBC; you can follow my running comments at twitter.com/denniskneale).

My biggest fear is what this arbitrary and abrupt intrusion by the FTC, without congressional authorization or exhortation, says about three broader issues:

First: That the federal government could end two decades of hands-off regard for the Internet and regulate it too much, constraining growth.

Second: That the feds now view consumers as hapless and helpless and unable to fend for themselves, instead of realizing that consumers are the ultimate free-market regulators—screw ’em over and you lose ’em.

And third: That an Imperial Bureaucracy is rising up in Washington, pre-emptively imposing rules where harm hasn’t yet been done and moving by fiat where Congress otherwise is divided.

All three disturbing trends threaten business, but the FTC foray into the blogosphere is especially onerous and reprehensible. It would force “all” bloggers who review any product or service to disclose any ties they have to the companies behind those goods. Failure to do so would result in an $11,000 fine for each infraction.

Revealing any swag is a good, ethical practice that the best blogs should follow anyway—and those that do ultimately will prevail in the market, without the FTC having to act as overlord for the entire blogosphere.

But once a government agency, unelected and unaccountable to anyone but the executive branch, makes this a legal requirement, the ridiculousness starts.

First and foremost: Have these officious FTC-crats heard of the First Amendment? The blogosphere is the ultimate 21st century mass medium, a hot bed of all forms of free speech.

Can you imagine if the FTC were to force The Wall Street Journal’s god of gadget reviews, Walt Mossberg, to reveal in every column that the product he’s praising arrived free of charge for a tryout? Or legally require, under threat of fine, the travel writers for The New York Times to disclose a junket?

Yes, the Journal and Times should ensure any such conflicts are disclosed or avoided—but they should do it to protect their brands and their business, not because some appointed government brass hat has decreed that they must.

Moreover, this FTC crackdown is absolutely unenforceable given the millions upon millions of blogs out there and the start-up of hundreds of thousands more every day.

So, instead, the FTC rules will become a cudgel used only when the FTC deems it advantageous—say, for blogs that bash Obama, or ones that cotton up to the feds’ chosen enemies. Or ones that tick off a friend of an FTC staff member.

And if the FTC is going to wade in here, how ’bout forcing Barnes & Noble to reveal how much Random House paid for the front-window display for its next best-seller? Why don’t we legally mandate that Pathmark must reveal that the end-aisle shelves are crammed with Twinkies because the Interstate Bakeries paid extra slotting fees?

This ain’t so far-fetched guys. Here’s a silly—and chilling—quote from an FTC official in today’s story in The Wall Street Journal: “We look at it from the perspective of the consumer and the principle being that a consumer has the right to know when they’re being pitched a product. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an email or Twitter or someone standing on a street corner.”

Someone standing on a freakin’ street corner??! So, this woman I know is in a running club, and she and her partners get freeAdidas sneakers—and when they go for a jog they have to shout out to everyone: “Hey! These shoes are fab, but beware: we got ’em free!”?

Does Washington really think we consumers are so stupid as to blindly follow the advice of an online shill without questioning whether the blogger is on the take? If we are—isn’t that our problem? Rather than its being the responsibility of Government, with a capital ‘g,’ to protect us from our own stupidity?

Worse, this FTC move is only the latest assault on the Internet. In the “net neutrality” debate, the Federal Communications Commission seeks to force AT&T and Verizon , which operate networks funded by their investors, to charge the same fee to all data providers regardless of how wide is the data load they need to transport.

Google created this whole issue—and now Google is a casualty of government overzealousness, too. The FCC questions why Google’s phone software should be allowed to rule out some numbers and servers (those run by, say, its rivals). And the Justice Department’s anti-trust lawyers are scrutinizing Google’s online deal with book publishers, never mind that plenty of alternatives are readily available.

But then, that is a hallmark of the Obama Bureaucracy: imposing new rules in anticipation of the remote possibility that harm might crop up later, instead of responding after the private sector fails us. The Food and Drug Administration is doing it, passing all sorts of new rules and recalls in the absence of any widespread harm.

The Environmental Protection Agency is doing the same with its sweeping, and incredibly arbitrary, ruling that carbon dioxide—which all of us exhale—is now officially a harmful substance. That lets the EPA slap de facto carbon taxes on factories when Congress is unwilling to pass the same.

This is too much government, it’s government gone wild. What is happening to our country, for gawdsakes? I get it: Anonymous, venomous bloggers are an odious lot. They follow no rules, they honor no ethical standards, they lie and exaggerate and traffic in libel and slander.

But guess what? They should be free to say just about anything they want, and free of any prior restraint and any edict forcing them to say something they don’t want to say. No government—and especially no Imperial Bureaucracy—should ever be allowed tread on that.

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