No, the title is not meant to imply a post about the privacy implications of mobile medical apps for psychotherapy. Instead, we’re taking a look at how the government acts at cross-purposes to itself when it comes to the oh-so-slow development of rules for new technologies and markets. The last few weeks have seen a couple of remarkable announcements, one from the FTC about digital advertising disclaimers and one from the SEC about corporate financial disclosures. Both were presented by the agencies as ways to enable use of social media by corporations — but instead just make things much harder, if not totally impracticable.
Two weeks ago, the Federal Trade Commission basically said “to heck” with form factor and responsive Web design by concluding that disclaimers, caveats and related mandatory advertising disclosures cannot be put into a popup window and must be in the same “conspicuous” format — font size and all — regardless of the device or medium. The FDA had already cracked down on trailblazing pharma firms that tried Facebook advertisements on the same grounds. Both enforcement decisions demonstrate a complete lack of familiarity with new media and an inability to flexibly apply the principles of regulatory schemes to changing circumstances.
Even if, unlike advertiser contentions, potential “Do Not Track” mandates for Web browsing would not kill the Internet content industry, the FTC has signaled it is prepared unilaterally to dictate the size of social media ads in the guise of consumer protection. The old guidance allowed for “proximity” of disclosures — that is, disclosures that were “near, and when possible, on the same screen.” The new guidance places heightened emphasis on disclosures being clear and conspicuous to consumers across all platforms. The newly announced principle is that disclosures should be “as close as possible,” with short form disclosures such as hyperlinks or hashtags permitted only when their meaning is understood by consumers.
Check out this remarkable assertion, for instance:
If a disclosure is necessary to prevent an advertisement from being deceptive, unfair or otherwise violative of a Commission rule, and if it is not possible to make the disclosure clear and conspicuous, then either the claim should be modified so the disclosure is not necessary or the ad should not be disseminated. Moreover, if a particular platform does not provide an opportunity to make clear and conspicuous disclosures, it should not be used to disseminate advertisements that require such disclosures.
A second and related announcement came on Tuesday from the Securities & Exchange Commission. The SEC is the federal agency which pioneered use of Facebook and other social media services in the corporate realm by providing 2008 guidance that release of corporate earnings and other “material” financial information can permissibly utilize social media. Yet now the same agency — after a fruitless investigation of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings for an innocuous Facebook post — says that companies may treat social media as legitimate outlets for communication, much like corporate Web sites or the agency’s own public filing system called Edgar, but first have to make clear which Twitter feeds or Facebook pages will serve as potential outlets for announcements.
It is difficult to reconcile these new regulatory positions with the objectives the agencies articulate. The SEC says it believes that “company disclosures should be more readily available to investors in a variety of locations and formats to facilitate investor access to that information,” but its actions only serve to make the choice of location and format more rigid, and with fines a potential consequence for those pursuing flexibility. Almost any lawyer counseling public company clients today will advise that financial information that in the future could be considered material by the SEC must be constrained to an official, designated Web page. So much for tweets, Facebook and other real-time forums, they’re just too risky — even though Hastings survived unscathed. The correct approach for the vast majority of the 13,000+ public companies in the U.S. is to steer clear of social media, at least for now, because the downside is simply too great.
Coming from a government that professes to want to encourage broader use of these new media, that’s classic bi-polarism, obviously not in a happy phase.
Note: Originally written for and reposted with permission of my law firm’s Information Intersection blog.