Friday, March 30, 2007

An anti-Astoturfing regulation?

The Government has announced its acceptance of the recommendations of Peter Rogers' Review to set national enforcement priorities for local authority Environmental Health and Trading Standards services in full. The announcement was made in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget Speech. This could be an opportunity for the Chartered Institution of Public Relations to insert an anti-Astroturfing clause into the Finance Act.

Astroturfing campaigns are described by the Institute as: the practice of falsely creating the impression of independent, popular support by means of an orchestrated and disguised public relations exercise.

The Rogers Review specifically targets activities pertinent to:

Fair trading (trade description, trade marking, mis-description, doorstep selling) ... (where) people become victims of scams.
Astroturfing is a mis description where a person or organisation deliberately sets out to mis describe the efficacy of an idea, product or service through the manipulation of public media and thereby are not an accurate description of goods or services; are a mis-description and is an, often online, activity of the nature of 'doorstep' selling or a 'scam'..

The Review detail is available here.

Specifically, an anti-Astroturfing clause could re-enforce rules to 'Ensure traders describe
goods/services accurately' and do not act to deceive.

Rogers makes the point that

Fair trading is a national enforcement priority because of the huge economic damage caused by rogue trading and mis-selling and the impact on individuals, particularly the vulnerable and elderly...

Trading Standards Professionals play an important role in maintaining a fair trading environment, a level playing field that benefits all good businesses. The way they operate is as important as the policy areas they cover in supporting the outcome of economic development.

The comment in Rogers that affects Astroturfing is where he notes:

Fair trading is an example of an area where multiple bodies are involved in delivering regulatory
objectives. Partnership in Delivery:
DTI is responsible for setting the framework of consumer and competition law which lies at
the heart of UK economic policy and within which OFT and local authority Trading Standards
Services (TSS) operate. OFT’s mission is to make markets work well for consumers. To achieve
this OFT works with partners with whom it shares common objectives. Its partnership with
TSS encompasses support to help them deliver their regulatory objectives and collaboration to
deliver shared regulatory objectives. OFT provides a national perspective and a focus that
complements the local and regional perspective and focus of TSS.

The regulatory Authority would be the Office of Fair Trading with enforcement by Trading Standards Professionals, whose chief responsibilities are fair trading, consumer protection (among others).

It would be a big feather in the cap of the CIPR to get a clause added which could be a precursor to EU wide regulation.

Talking of Europe-wide legislation, which as Retail Bulletin reminds us, demands that companies only send unsolicited sales messages via email to non-customers if they have actively opted-in to receiving them. Some 30% of companies are not implementing such policies. In practice, this means that whenever someone's details are recorded they must be asked whether they want to receive subsequent sales marketing e-messages from that company or any other third party. The legislation makes it crystal clear that simply offering someone the opportunity to opt-out of receiving unsolicited emails (or indeed pre-ticking an opt-in box) does not comply with the Directive.

There is other legislation to protects people online. The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 impose requirements on businesses that sell at a distance' i.e. sell over the Internet. These regulations require that certain information, such as the identity of the business, a full description of goods or services and the costs involved in their purchase has to be provided before a contract is completed. When buying goods or services over the Internet , consumers have a cooling off' period of seven days in which they can withdraw from a contract.

With an anti-Astroturfing regulation, we could begin to see a body of law that is practical for the practice of Public Relations.