Federal Trade Commission
Sixth St. & Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20580
Interpretation of Rules and Guides
For Electronic Media-Comment FTC No. P974102
Bell Atlantic Corporation ("Bell Atlantic") is a
telecommunications company with facilities and operations throughout the United States.
Through its operating telephone company subsidiaries, Bell Atlantic provisions more than
41 million telephone access lines and has more than 6.7 million wireless communications
customers who have internet access through their wireless service. In addition, through
s Internet Solutions, the Company offers Bell
Atlantic.net, a dial-up Internet access service now available in selected cities in
Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Rhode Island as well as in the District of Columbia.
Through another subsidiary, Bell Atlantic also publishes an on-line directory, Big
Yellow(sm) which carries thousands of separate ads for third parties with links to other
Bell Atlantic appreciated the FTCs invitation to participate in the
May 14, 1999 workshop and supports FTCs effort to apply its advertising disclosure
rules appropriately to electronic media and commerce. Bell Atlantic believes that the
Workshop contributed in significant ways to a greater understanding by the government,
consumer activist groups and the business community of FTC rules and guidelines and how
they might apply to the new media.
We believe the most encouraging aspect of the Workshop was the extent to
which the participants found agreement on almost all topics. In fact, we at Bell Atlantic
believe that recent research underscores the anecdotal evidence which we have noted
showing a higher level of income, education, and sophistication among internet consumers
than that of the average member of the general public. We believe that the level of
general agreement at the workshop supported this assumption in that few consumers have
been the victims of deceptive advertising. In fact, it is notable how little outcry there
has been among consumers and consumer activists relating to lack of disclosures concerning
sales made on the Internet.
A New Standard for Making Disclosures
We appreciate this opportunity to highlight those areas where there was a
significant agreement among all of the participants with respect to the methodology of
disclosures made on the Internet.
1. Disclosures made through hyperlinks are effective. There was
significant agreement that disclosures made by hyperlink to another page at a website are
effective, provided they are correctly labeled. There appeared to be little discussion of
any requirement that all disclosures should be placed on the same page as the claim which
they modified. Indeed, a correctly labeled hyperlink was identified by many at the
Workshop as a more effective disclosure than the same disclosure placed at the bottom of
the screen in a smaller type size. The consensus supported Bell Atlantics belief
that a hyperlink can be, and is, a far more effective disclosure device than other means
available in other media, such as supers in a television commercial. A properly labeled
hyperlink will announce its content to the website reader and will do so in an clear and
conspicuous way. Consumers who are interested in the hyperlink content will explore
further, and those who are not can move on but can always return at a later time.
Hyperlinks enable essential messages to get to consumers without generating confusion
through masses of unrelated disclosures and information.
2. Disclosures need not be made in a banner ad. A banner ad, by
general agreement, is a new type of message, which is unique to the Internet. Although
many participants likened banner ads to messages in other media, no analogy was completely
accurate. However, all were agreed that a banner ad is simply a headline and a teaser; by
definition it invites the consumer to learn more. Neither consumer advocates nor
businesses would expect that terms and conditions or important information would be
conveyed in a banner ad. A banner ad would be far less effective than a hyperlink for
providing necessary disclosure, because internet users have become accustomed to expect
banner ads to be advertising and promotion and a connection on to another website, rather
than a link to hard information.
3. Unavoidability should not be required for mandated disclosures.
General consensus could also be found in the participants agreement that the
Internet is an efficient communication medium which should be used efficiently. Technology
exists to force internet users to view certain screens before they can proceed further
into a website. Screens that are required to be viewed are regarded as
"unavoidable." The FTC has posed the question as to whether certain disclosures
should be "unavoidable" by website visitors. The question was put to the
workshops as to whether, in electronic media, mandated disclosures should be shown on
unavoidable screens. There was, surprisingly, general agreement that unavoidable screens
bearing mandated disclosures should not be required. Unavoidable screens have thus far
been used primarily when users and visitors to a website are asked to register or
otherwise provide information to the host of the site. As a result, when a page is
unavoidable, the mere fact that it is mandated reading appears to cause users to pay less
attention - indeed, they appear to regard it as a nuisance since they often delay the
users access to desired information. The very fact that a screen cannot be avoided
could result in the user completely disregarding the very information deemed most
critical. The "unavoidability" approach was properly and soundly rejected by the
participants at the workshop.
Bell Atlantic believes that the electronic media and electronic commerce
are advantageous to both consumers and to businesses, enabling greater quantities of
information to be provided in a more palatable way than was possible by conventional
media. We believe that the Commission has made great advances in understanding the new
media, both in its promise and its dangers. At this time, the most pressing problems which
are raised by webcommerce are those which have always posed significant consumer
protection issues: pyramid schemes and other outright frauds.
We find it significant that both consumer groups and businesses
demonstrated high levels of agreement with respect to the methodology of making
disclosures on the Internet. We urge the Commission to heed the message that this
consensus sends and permit the unhindered growth of electronic commerce in its current
fashion. We believe the Commission should focus on those areas where complaints reveal
significant consumer problems with respect to electronic commerce. Those problems appear
to be inherent in online auctions and in frauds when schemes have adapted to the online
environment. It is in those areas that the FTC should continue to focus its resources. The
Commission has demonstrated that it can be quite effective in detecting and exposing such
harmful activities and we believe the Workshop demonstrated to the Commission that in this
new media, advertising can be a true vehicle for education of the consumer about the
products and services being sold.