Keep Your Clothes On, Kids!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/120920526@N08/16053219327/
Dark Selfie by www.sebastian.rieger.photos from Flickr (Creative Commons License

I regularly get messages from teens or their parents that say the kid was chatting online with someone they don’t know in real life. The person convinces the child to show their genitals or masturbate for them using their web cam. The person then says that they captured the video and threaten to post it online or send it to the kid’s friends, family, and/or school. Sometimes the person demands money in exchange for not sharing the video with others.

The variation of this situation I regularly hear about is from teens who send nudes or partial nudes to someone online, and then the person threatens to post them online. In one email, the teen said the person threatened to post the images if the teen refused to continue sending nude images of herself.

Ugh!! What is wrong with these people who are preying on kids like this? Don’t coerce children into creating and sending child porn.

These situations usually involve 14, 15, and 16 year-old kids – of all genders. When they reach out to me, they are petrified. They’re afraid they’re going to be humiliated. They’re afraid they can’t ask for help from an adult in their life. They’re afraid of what they’re parents are going to say if they find out. They’re afraid they’re going to get into trouble.

I wanted to share a few thoughts so hopefully other teens don’t have to go through this situation.

You’re Not a Bad Person, Kid.

If you’re a kid in this situation, you’re not a bad person. You made a mistake, hopefully one you won’t have to repeat again.

Whenever you send a nude image of yourself, regardless of whether you’re sending it to a stranger on the internet or texting your romantic partner, there’s always a risk that the images could fall into the wrong hands. For the rest of your life, whenever you choose to send nude images of yourself, assume they’re going to be seen by your family and friends and/or end up online.

Ask for Help

No one should have to deal with this type of situation by themselves, especially a kid. Reach out to a trusted adult in your life – a parent, a friend’s parent, a teacher, a coach, even the police. You can always call the non-emergency number for your local police department to discuss your options, or ask a friend to do it for you.

It may be hard to know what the right thing to do is in your situation. You always have the option to wait and see if the person follows through on any threats they’ve made. If you tell them to leave you alone and they comply, that might be the end of it (though they now have nude images and/or video of you).

You also have the right to report the incident to law enforcement, request a restraining order from the court, or file a civil lawsuit depending on your circumstances.

Legal Implications – For Both Sides

Given that these are situations that may involve the creation and sending of child pornography, there are many potential legal implications, including some for you.

Depending on the rules of your state, by taking nude pictures of yourself or performing live on camera, you may have participated in the creation of child porn. The same law would apply to someone who voluntarily sends a nude image of themselves to their significant other. Some states have lower crimes for dealing with the situation where the person in the photo is also the creator.

The perpetrator, the bad actor, could be facing many of legal accusations:

  • Requesting nude images or performance by video: Solicitation
  • If two or more people are in cahoots to get nude images from kids: Conspiracy
  • Creating screenshots or captures from your performance: Creation of Child Pornography
  • Keeping the photos and video you provided: Possession of Child Pornography
  • Threatening to share the images with others: Revenge Porn
  • Demanding money to keep the person from sending the images with others: Blackmail/Extortion
  • Sending the photos and video to others or posting them online: Distribution of Child Pornography

There could be other legal implications in addition to these. As always, check your local laws for information pertinent to your specific situation.

Perpetrators Deserve to be Punished

People who prey on children like this deserve to face the consequences of their actions. If the person is outside the U.S. or if they created a fake account, it may be difficult to pursue the person. You always have to contact the police to file a report. Even if they can’t catch the perpetrator based on your case, the person may do it again to someone else, and the information you provide could help.

I regularly talk with kids who say they don’t want to report the situation to the police; they just want the person to stop. One way these perpetrators try to avoid punishment is by relying on the victim to be too afraid or ashamed to report them. Whether you report this person or not is your decision.

I was pleased recently when I saw that YouTuber Austin Jones pleaded guilty to child porn after he allegedly solicited explicit videos from 14 and 15 year-old girls using Facebook Messenger and Apple’s iMessage services.  He even alleged told them to send these videos to prove that they were his fans.

Eww! Eww eww eww! People like this are disgusting!

He’s scheduled to be sentenced this May and could face at least five years in prison.

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How to Legally Use User-Generated Content

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoidberg72/16243539933
Selfie by dr_zoidberg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s a question I get from companies and their marketers: What are the legal dos and don’ts for using user-generated content? These are situations where a company wants to use a photo, video, or text created by one of their fans, usually from a site like Instagram, Facebook, or Trip Advisor. Many companies merely want to approach the person through the platform where they found the content they want to use and ask for permission to use it. While this strategy is convenient, it may not be in the company’s best interest.

Using Content Within a Platform

It’s easiest when a company wants to share someone’s post within the social media platform – e.g., sharing someone’s Instagram photo on the company’s Instagram. Many social media sites build this option into the platform where you don’t even have to ask for permission to share someone’s post on another’s account.  

Of course, I’m a risk-adverse lawyer so I tell my clients to review the terms of service first to see what happens just in case it turns out the person who created the post you shared didn’t have the right to do so and now you have to deal with the fallout. Depending on the circumstances, I might contact the person to ask the person if they took the photo (which would indicate if they’re likely the copyright holder), try to verify that the original poster is complying with the platform’s rules

Using Content Across Different Platforms

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. These are the situations where you want to take content from someone’s post on one platform and share it on a different social media site, your website, or another third-party platform. For this situation, I recommend you have a contract drafted by a lawyer. You could have them create a template for you if curating user-generated content is part of your marketing plan.

If I were creating a contract template for obtaining permission to use content created by a user or fan, I’d likely include terms such as:

  • The user owns the IP in the content: either they created it or they have permission to use it
  • The user has authority to grant the company permission to use the content
  • The user grants the company a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sublicensable, paid-in-full, royalty-free license to the company to use the content for any purpose without needing the person’s consent or credit, including the creation of derivative works (or in the alternative, that the user grants the company a copyright assignment)
  • The user will reimburse the company’s legal fees and damages if it is accused of wrongdoing because the company used the user’s content

Such a contract would also include boilerplate verbiage, like a dispute resolution provision that states how the company and user will resolve disputes if one occurs.

Always Apply Reality

In any potential legal situation, be sure to apply reality. If a company wants to use a photo with two people in it, whoever posted the image may not be able to speak on behalf of the other person in the photo, and you may need release from identifiable people to avoid being accused of violating their right of publicity.

Additionally, it will likely take longer to get permission if you want to use images and other content across platforms. Be sure to build that into your timeline if your marketing plan involves using user-generated content.

There are also those who may question whether it’s worthwhile to have a lawyer create a contract for these circumstances. When there are no issues, a contract may seem superfluous; however, contracts are imperative in situations where there is a dispute and/or the parties forget the terms of their agreement. When you work with your lawyer to create you contract, make sure it has provisions that will apply to situations that are likely to occur as well as the worst-case scenarios.

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GDPR: Full Disclosure Required

«Via sicura» by Falk Lademann from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

If you’ve been following this blog, you know I’m all about preparing for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as it applies to content marketing. This rule applies to every company that sends commercial emails to anyone in the European Union. (If you don’t know where everyone on your list is located, assume at least one of them lives in the EU.) We’ve already talked about how, under this law, when you want to add a person to your email list, you must get their specific informed consent and you must be able to prove that you obtained their consent to be on your list.

The GDPR requires, when you obtain this consent, to provide the person (aka data subject) with the following information:

  • The identity and contact information of the controller of the data subject’s information or their representative;
  • The contact information for the data protection officer (if applicable);
  • Your purpose for processing the data subject’s information and legal basis for doing so;
  • The period of time the data will be stored;
  • The data subject’s right to request erasure or corrections of their data or to restrict the processing of their data;
  • The data subject’s right to withdraw their consent;
  • The data subject’s right to lodge a complaint with the supervisory authority; and
  • Whether the data subject giving their information fulfills a statutory or contractual obligation.

If you want to process the subject’s data for another purpose, you must tell the person in advance, and when a person’s data is processed for direct marketing purposes, the data subject has the right to object at any time.

At the first reading of these requirements, my first thought was that the signage at conferences where vendors collect business cards would have to become much more complicated to comply with GDPR. I thought about how this firm will comply with these requirements. People voluntarily add themselves to my email, so I don’t know where they live. I will be adding double opt-in consent for my email list, and I believe the most effective way to comply with these requirements is to include this information in the confirmatory email.

You can hear more about these requirements here:

We have to comply with these rules by May 25, 2018 when this new rule goes into effect.

If you want more information about GDPR, please watch this site and my YouTube channel because I’m creating a substantial amount of content on this topic. You can also send me an email (Note: I can’t give advice to non-clients). I use my mailing list to I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. Please add yourself if you’re interested.

You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Preparing for GDPR: Are You Ready?

Europe Privacy Law GDPR from Smeders Internet

This year, I’m putting considerable energy into understanding and complying with the GDPR.

What is the GDPR?

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a European law that goes into effect on May 25, 2018.

It impacts any professional commercial activities regarding natural persons residing in the EU, so that includes process personal information about natural person who lives in the EU, or sending commercial emails to any natural person who lives in the EU. Commercial emails include the offer of goods or services, even if you’re not doing it in exchange for money.

The purpose of this new law is to protect natural persons’ personal data, and it includes provisions about obtaining data subjects’ consent and using adequate security to protect their information. Failure to comply could result in millions of dollars in fines.

Who is Exempt from GDPR?

The GDPR does not apply to anyone who stores or uses person’s data for personal use – like if you maintain a personal database of contacts, and some of them happen to be people who live in the EU.

It also doesn’t apply to anonymous persons or dead people.

Complying with the GDPR

I have read the GDPR from cover to cover (260 pages). A significant amount of my work in early 2018 will be related to GDPR compliance – starting with my own company

My rule for my email list is people add themselves. It’s disrespectful when companies add you to their email list without consent, so I don’t do it. As a result, I have no idea where most of my subscribers are located. I have assume at least one of them is a person who resides in the EU, therefore the GDPR applies.

For the next few weeks, I’m going to be breaking down this law into it’s requirements and applying them to my business so I can, in turn, educate and help other companies modify their policies and practices before the law goes into effect on May 25, 2018.

This is not a law that companies can easily comply by adding a new paragraph to their terms of service. It will change their tactics and approach to content marketing.

If you want more information about GDPR, please watch this site and my YouTube channel because I’m creating a substantial amount of content on this topic. You can also send me an email (Note: I can’t give advice to non-clients). I use my mailing list to I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. Please add yourself if you’re interested.

You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Unsolicited Advice: Shut Up

“zip your mouth and shut up” by pHotosHo0x from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

As a lawyer, clients come to help prevent or resolve legal problems. It’s my job to explore the pertinent facts of the situation, explain the legal implications to my client, present their options, and make recommendations. The decision of what to do is ultimately the client’s choice. When your lawyer recommends that you refrain from speaking about a situation publicly, that may be their polite way of saying, “Shut up. Anything you say will likely make your situation worse.”

What Not To Do
Today’s example of what not to do comes from Robert Scoble. After several women publicly accused him of sexual harassment and/or assault, he released a blog post entitled “No, of that I’m innocent.” In this post he wrote:

I have rejected my lawyer’s advice to not make a statement and in a spirit of healing I would like to address the issue head on with open and honest dialogue.

I’m glad he admitted that he was ignoring his lawyer’s advice. He went on to state what he called the “actual truth of the allegations” against him, naming his accusers, and calling out alleged misbehaviors of his accusers in their encounters with him.

If your lawyer is telling you not to talk about accusations against you, assuming you’re already in a hole. Stop digging.

Scoble also claimed he could not have sexually harass any of these women because he was never “in a position where I could make or break their careers.” Umm…that’s not how sexual harassment works. It can occur outside an employment, professional, or financial relationship.

Listen to Your Lawyer
When I first meet with a client, I explain that lawyer-client privilege applies, meaning I can’t repeat what I client tells me. The reverse is not true. I can’t control what a client says or posts when they leave my office. If I tell them not to talk about their case, it’s because I think that’s what’s in their best interest. As a third party, I’m not emotionally enmeshed in the situation. I can see the forest for the trees when they can’t and help move them towards the ultimate outcome they seek, and avoid pitfalls in the moment.

When it comes to internet posts, here are some of my general suggestions:

  • Think before you post.
  • Today’s righteous indignation may be tomorrow’s regret.
  • Ditto for drunken rants.

The internet never forgets. One post can cost you your career, marriage, or reputation. Even if you delete a post you regret creating, you don’t know how many people saw, copied, or downloaded the post before you deleted it. And there’s probably a copy of that post on a server somewhere.

If your lawyer advises you not to talk about something online or otherwise, don’t do it. There’s a good chance you’re setting yourself up for more pain in the future, and there are some bells that we can’t un-ring.

If you want additional information about the legalities of social media, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. You can also contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list.

Anthony Weiner Sentenced to 21 Months for Sexting: Processing My Thoughts

Chainlink Prison Fence by Jobs For Felons Hub from Flickr

This week, former Congressman Anthony Weiner was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for “transferring obscene material,” aka sexting, with a 15 year-old. He’ll also have 3 years of supervision after he’s released, including internet monitoring, and will have to register as a sex offender.

According to reports, here’s what we know about this case:

  • He knew he was talking to a 15 year-old using various social media platforms.
  • He sent the teen nude pictures of himself.
  • He asked her to sexually perform for him on Skype.

Clearly his behavior was criminally and morally wrong.

Anthony Weiner
112th Congress
from Wikipedia

I’ve been mulling over this situation for the past few days, wondering if the punishment fits the crime. I asked friends who are teachers or the parents of tweens and teens for their reactions. Some said 21 months was too lenient, some said too harsh, and others agreed it was appropriate based on the available information.

I’ve watched plenty of episodes of To Catch A Predator where men engaged in similar online behavior with people they thought were teens, and then showed up at a house to meet them before being arrested. At the end of the program, they reported the sentences of these perpetrators, and often they were sentenced to less than 12 months in prison. Some only got probation. It makes me wonder whether Weiner’s sentenced was based solely on his interactions with this minor or his history of sexting.

It’s been sad to watch a charismatic up-and-coming Congressman destroy his professional life, his reputation, and his marriage because of his sexual compulsivity. The judge even acknowledged that Weiner has a disease. His past impropriety involved sexting with other consenting adults – not illegal, but not appropriate given his then-political position and being in a seemingly non-open marriage. Part of me wonders how his past behavior (where no criminal laws were broken) factored into the sentence.

Likewise, I wonder if Weiner’s position as a public figure played a role in his sentence. The judge reportedly sentenced him to 21 months in part to serve as a general deterrence. While I respect that one of the purposes of criminal punishment is to deter others from acting in similar ways, I question whether Weiner was punished for the law(s) he broke or to make an example out of him. The law says he could have received a sentence up to 10 years, and 21 months was within the range of jail time requested by the prosecution, so I’m not saying the judge or the prosecutor acted outside the scope of their position, but I still wonder how the judge came to her decision.

Of course, Judge Cote was there for the entire trial process, and I’m watching from the sidelines. I’m in no way questioning her judgment.

This whole situation has also reminded me of how little I expect a person to be rehabilitated while incarcerated. I’d rather see people convicted of committing crimes, in part due to an addiction, be sentenced to a long-term treatment facility followed by jail time with ongoing counseling.

The other thing this crime reminded me of is how important it is for parents to monitor what their kids are doing when they’re online. It’s not just an issue of where they go, what apps they’re using, what they say, and what pictures they’re taking, but also who is trying to communicate with their kids.

Regarding Anthony Weiner and his victim, I have no answers. I don’t know what the appropriate punishment should be for adults who are caught sexting with teens, or whether Weiner’s sentence was too harsh or too lenient. I hope I’m not the only person who was inspired to step back and consider what is the correct legal and social response to these criminal acts.

I’m constantly doing work related to internet law, so if you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my email list. (Please note: If you suspect you’re the victim of an internet crime, I will refer you to law enforcement.)

Model Release and Regret

“Subway Ballet” by J Stimp from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently, I received an email from a photographer (not my client) who had a question about the validity of model releases. As I understood the situation, he hired a model (over age 18) to do a photoshoot at his studio. The model was photographed nude for at least part of the shoot. The model signed a model release and was paid for her modeling services.

After the photoshoot, the photographer censored some of the images to comply with Facebook’s rules and posted them online.  The model saw the images and was upset. The photographer asked me if the model had any authority to force him to take the images down.

The Rules of Model Releases
Model releases are standard in the photography world. In most cases, the photographer owns the copyright in their work from the moment the photo is created, not the person in the photo, and the model owns the right to publicize their own image.

The model release transfers the model’s right to publicity in those images to the photographer, which allows the photographer to use the images per the terms of the release. Usually, when I write a model release or a model release template, the model gives the photographer permission to use the images in any way and for any purpose, without restriction.

In general, once the model release is signed, the model’s given up their rights. If the model later regrets signing it, there may be nothing they can do to “unring that bell” unless the photographer is willing to negotiate another agreement – such as a copyright assignment where the model purchases the copyright rights in the images from the photographer.

Think Before You Sign
If you are a model, read the model release carefully. Never sign the release without reading and understanding it. Many of them allow for unfettered use by the photographer, including the right to license the images to others. Treat the images as if they are going to end up all over the internet, on billboards, on products or marketing campaigns you hate. Chances are, that’s not going to happen, but it could.

I write not just as a lawyer, but also a model myself. On a number of occasions, I have written and signed my own model release. Models may give up substantial rights when signing these documents, so it’s not a decision to make lightly.

What Could Invalidate a Model Release
Even if the model release was written by a lawyer and appears to valid on its face, there are situations where a model release might be invalid due to the circumstances surrounding the shoot:

  • The model was minor (Depending on your state, minors may not be able to sign contracts or they can withdraw their consent upon reaching the age of majority.)
  • The model was an adult but lacked the capacity to enter into a legally binding contract. (These people usually have an appointed guardian to sign for them.)
  • The model was intoxicated. (In general, intoxicated people can’t enter into valid contracts.)
  • The model was forced to sign the contract under duress. (You can’t get a valid contract if you use threats or force to get someone to sign it.)

There can also be instances where the photo in question was taken outside the scope of the model release and so the model release does not apply.

I get questions every day about photography, image rights, and copyright. If you are a photographer or model (or aspiring to be one), it’s imperative that you understand these issues. Many disputes can be avoided with well-written contracts and accurate information. I’m constantly doing work in this area, so if you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, you can contact me directly or check out the other posts and videos I’ve done on the legal side of photography. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

How to have an Anonymous LLC

Anonymous by Poster Boy NYC from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s the easy answer: You don’t.

It may be impossible to own an LLC anonymously. There’s always a paper trail and financial records that eventually lead to you.

Burying Your Identity in Your LLC
Creating an LLC requires paperwork and money. The Articles of Organization that are filed with the State are public records. If you didn’t want to have your name on your company, you set up layers of companies that own companies that own your LLC so it would take longer to trace it back to you. You could also set up a blind trust where you are the beneficiary. That would keep your name off the public records, but there would still be documents somewhere that show the connection. (Because business filing are public records, I often recommend that clients not use their home address as their business address. There are many low-cost mailbox services.)

Even if your name is not on the company as an owner, there would still be the records of payments to you. It may require a court order for someone to gain access to this information, but it would be telling if the majority of payments from the company (or companies if you ran it through multiple entities) went to a single person.

When someone asks how to be an anonymous owner of a company, it raises a red flag for me about their motivations and their business activities. If a company or person is controversial or engaging in potentially malicious acts, it may raise enough eyebrows that someone will be motivated to take a closer look at its inner workings.

How to Run a Website Anonymously
Conversely, it may be possible to operate a website relatively anonymously. You would have to essentially divorce yourself from the website:

  • Use an email address for the website registration that isn’t otherwise connected to you. Don’t access this email using your phone.
  • Pay for the website with a pre-paid credit card.
  • Use a web hosting service that protects your information.
  • Only access the website using public wifi. Never access it from work or home.
  • Turn off your phone when working on your website – so the GPS in your phone will be turned off.
  • Consider using an app that masks or mocks your GPS location when you access the internet.

Even when you take all the precautions to be anonymous online, be prepared to be unmasked at anytime. Whatever you say anonymous, you best be ready to own it once your name and face are attached to it.

If you want a resource regarding the legal dos and don’ts regarding posts on the internet, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you need legal help regarding internet privacy, you can contact me directly or a social media lawyer in your community. I post about these issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Should your Child have a YouTube Channel?

Tire Swing by RichardBowen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Tire Swing by RichardBowen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I recently spoke at a family law conference on how to get usable evidence from social media. Afterwards, a woman approached me and said her 11 year-old child asked to have YouTube channel and several his friends already had channels. She wasn’t sure if she should let him and asked for my input.

Google Says No
The easy and obvious surface-level response to this question is Google (which owns YouTube) doesn’t allow anyone to have an account that is under 13 years old. (That’s the rule for all social media accounts in the U.S., by the way.) However, there’s nothing wrong with a parent creating a separate Google account to use with their child to create content for a YouTube channel.

Teachable Moments and Skill Development
My first response to the idea of a child having a YouTube channel, is that it’s a great opportunity to develop their skills – both as a content creator and as a person interacting with others online. Before letting the child create video content, have a serious planning discussion with them about what they want to create, their motivations for creating it, and what topics/language are off-limits. All these things should be written down; it’s good practice for creators to have a thoughtful for plan for what they want to create. You can help your child develop their video editing and copyright writing skills, as well as learn the rules about using others’ content and doing product reviews online that comply with the federal rules.

The parent(s) should review the child’s final draft of a video before it is uploaded to their channel to make sure they’re following the rules. This is an ideal opportunity to talk with your child about the potential long-term effects of a piece of content, and how they would react if they receive feedback from peers or teachers about it at school. Also, you want to decide in advance whether you will allow comments on your child’s videos. It may be prudent to turn these off, at least at first. Allowing your child to post content online comes with the responsibility of being mindful about who is trying to interact with them – either through comments, email, or direct messages.

Safety First
If you let you child have a YouTube channel, regardless of their age, be sure you’re monitoring both what they’re communicating to others (publicly and privately) and what others are saying to them. If they are under 18 years old, you should have the passwords to all their accounts and their phone so you can effectively and closely monitor what they’re doing online. The younger they are, the more oversight they need. Use effective software to monitor and protect your kids. Here’s some real-life advice from geek parent Susan Baier about her experience raising a geek child:

I also strongly recommend that you read the books by security expert Gavin de Becker, especially The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift. If you want a resource about the legal dos and don’ts about social media for yourself and your children, I suggest you read The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. The lessons in there apply to all social media platforms, including YouTube. If you want to connect with me and my thoughts about children using the internet, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

FTC Compliance Friendly Reminders

Praise by bark from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Praise by bark from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Bloggers, vloggers, and other social influencers frequently asked me about the rules regarding disclosure when partnering with companies and using affiliate links. With holidays (and therefore holiday gift guides) on the horizon, it seemed apropos to share some helpful reminder for how to comply with the FTC’s disclosure rules when you get free product or are compensated for providing a review.

It’s All About Transparency
The purpose of the FTC’s disclosure rules is transparency. When people consume content, they have a right to know whether the creator has a relationship with the company or product or whether it is 100% their independent opinion. Knowing that a person has a relationship with a company, which may or may not include financial compensation, will impact whether a person reads or view a post and how much weight or credibility to give it.

To comply with the transparency requirements of Federal law, social influencers must clearly and prominently label the content they were compensated to make as advertising to avoid misleading consumers.

Disclosure First
Many influencers put their notice that they were compensated for doing a post or that a post has affiliate links at the end of the content. This is likely insufficient to comply with the rules because consumers need to be informed before they form an opinion about a product that they’re reading a sponsored post or an ad.

In general, you should make a disclosure in the post itself and shortly before the reader receives the advertising message. The FTC recommends putting it in front of or above the ad’s headline. Additionally, the notice need to be clear and unambiguous language. To determine whether your disclosure complies with the FTC, consider your notice from the perspective of the reasonable consumer who’s seeing your content for the first time. Will he/she notice the disclosure statement and understand that they’re reading or seeing an ad?

The FTC says terms like “ad,” “advertisement,” or “sponsored advertising content” are likely to be understood but terms like “promoted,” or “sponsored by [XYZ]” don’t comply with the disclosure requirement because they could be interpreted as merely underwriting the content without influencing the statements made in it.

So what does this mean? If you write a review of a product that you got for free or got paid for writing the post about it, you have to disclose at the top of the post that you have a relationship with the company. If you use affiliate links, you have to clearly disclose those relationships as well, prior to posting the link. (In some circumstances, using the term “affiliate link” may be insufficient if the average consumer doesn’t know the difference between links and affiliate links. Yes, this happens – I recently attend a blogging conference where an attendee assumed that the terms “link” and “affiliate link” were interchangeable.)

Every Post, Every Platform
When you have a relationship with a company or are compensated for writing about a product, you have to disclose it to your audience every time you write about it – regardless of the platform it’s on or what device people use to access it. Every single time. (Yes, I know this is annoying, but it’s what the FTC requires.)

Disclosure is Everyone’s Responsibility
Everyone who is involved in the creation or distribution of native advertising should review the content to ensure that the required disclosure is present and that the material does not mislead the audience about the product or the relationship between the writer and the company. This includes middle men like ad agencies. If anyone is found to be in violation of the FTC rules about native advertising, they could be fined by the FTC – the company that created the product or service, the writer, and anyone in between who was involved – up to $16,000. That’s a stiff penalty for forgetting or refusing to disclose a relationship.

If you want to learn more about this topic, I recommend the FTC’s article, Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses. If you want to chat with me about these issues, like how to incorporate these requirements into website terms of service or contracts with third party content creators, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.