The lawsuit against data broker Spokeo is the FTC’s first Fair Credit Reporting Act case addressing the collection of online info — including data from social networking sites — when used in the context of employment screening. But that’s not the only way the Spokeo settlement touches on social media. The FTC also charged that Spokeo violated Section 5 by having employees post glowing recommendations of the company’s services on news and technology websites without disclosing their true identity.
Perhaps just the work of a rogue cubicle occupant? No, said the FTC. According to the complaint, Spokeo directed its employees to write the comments. Spokeo managers then edited what they wrote and had the staffers post the endorsements using account names provided by Spokeo. The purpose, says the FTC, was to give readers the misleading impression that the laudatory words had been posted by independent consumers or business users of Spokeo.
The FTC’s revisions to its Endorsement Guides made headlines a few years ago. Ironically enough, the provision that seemed to attract the most attention is one that didn’t change. It’s the law — and it’s always been the law under Section 5 — that consumers have a right to know when there’s a material connection between an advertiser and an endorser. Here’s how the Guides put it: "When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement ( i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed."
According to the FTC, by posting comments that conveyed the untruthful impression that they came from satisfied users of Spokeo’s services, Spokeo engaged in false and misleading practices. To settle the endorsement count in the lawsuit, Spokeo has agreed that it won’t misrepresent, expressly or by implication, the status of any user of a product or service — for example, that someone is an independent, ordinary endorser if that’s not the case. The company also will clearly and prominently disclose any material connection between an endorser and Spokeo (or any other entity advertising, selling, or promoting a product) when a connection exists. What about the bogus endorsements already posted? Spokeo has seven days to take all reasonable steps to pull them down.
Looking for more about complying with the Endorsement Guides? Read The FTC’s Revised Endorsement Guides: What People are Asking and watch this video:
While you’re at it, share this post and those resources with your marketing staff, your ad agency, your PR firm, and anyone else who plays a role in your publicity and promotions.