Some Online Strategies About To Be A Criminal Offence

In the recesses of my dark grey past, I did engage in some shady techniques that would have gotten me arrested had this new law existed back then.  In my defence it wouldn’t have been just me that would have been sent to the dock – Sony, Wal-Mart, McDonalds and others would have been criminals had new legislation been in force back then.

What new law would have made me a criminal had I not seen the light and become a white hat (honest!  pure as driven snow)?  “Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008”  This interesting law comes in to force on May 28th 2008 and within the UK stands to criminalise some regrettably common practices.

Yes, I have pretended to be a customer in my shady past and recruited others to help in my nefarious schemes.  I have posted reviews having never visited the establishments as part of a commission.  I have used friends to help do the same from various IPs over a period of time.  I have been a very naughty girl but I’m better now thank goodness.

So, what’s up?  Well, it all comes back to certain fakes out there and the need to guard against them.  A ‘flog’ is a fake blog usually created by a PR or online marketing firm for the purpose of falsely representing themselves as a consumer, usually for the purposes of creating a buzz around a specific product or brand.  Sometimes this is done as a brand or online reputation management activity.

Wal-Mart had one of the more famous flogs about a couple in an RV parking at various Wal-Mart stores across America and praising staff, service and selection.  Sony hit the headlines through their “All I Want for Christmas” flog which claimed to be by a boy who wanted a PS3 for Christmas.  McDonalds hit some headlines with the 4Railways flog about someone obsessed with getting all four railway cards in McDonalds monopoly game.  There are tons more, sometimes created by our colleagues in this industry we all love.

So, what does it all really say?  The section in question states that commercial practices which are unfair include “Falsely claiming or creating the impression that the trader is not acting for purposes relating to his trade, business, craft or profession, or falsely representing oneself as a consumer.”  Whoops… bad Judith… no chocolate for you!  Thankfully when I did it, I was way less transparent than one I saw recently.  *rolls eyes* Amateurs!

Whether it is “Joan08” pretending to be a patron at a restaurant or “Jim and Laura” pretending to be Wal-Mart customers, deliberately misleading consumers is going to be punishable under law.  Be aware black hats in the UK – if you get caught the stakes just got criminally high.

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22 Responses to “Some Online Strategies About To Be A Criminal Offence”

  1. Tom says:

    Interesting stuff! I wonder if this will actually have much effect, after all it’s difficult to police. And what about a blog hosted outside the UK? Or someone outside the UK blogging on a UK hosted blog?

  2. Poker-Chicks says:

    “…or falsely representing oneself as a consumer.”

    Elinor: don’t celebs who promote a product owned by a big company represent themselves as a consumer falsely…on TV…to millions of viewers…
    Or: yeah – I fell for that trap with Vic Reeves in the Ladies Bingo TV Ad :-)
    Elinor: You ass, he really DOES play bingo there…

  3. Joff says:

    I’m sure you could take the stance that everyone is a consumer, even if you are associated with a particular company through the payroll.

    Then you could also say that you are publishing a flog as a work of fiction, but would you need to add a disclaimer to say as such?

  4. mikey777 says:

    I think this law is going to be just as hard to enforce as illegal file sharing. The authorities are going to have to put in a lot of effort to find these criminals, and when they do the consequences probably won’t be too severe. I really think these practices will continue without much interruption (just like illegal file sharing)–they’ll just get better at it.

  5. DougS says:

    So how do they track a UK company that outsources to a Cypriot company that outsources to an Indian company?

    Doug

  6. Timmay says:

    PR firms are pretending that the goods & services of the firms they represent are better than they actually are! How long has THIS been going on.

    Seriously, good luck enforcing this.

    Luckily the good folks on the interwebs are smart enough to sniff out this kind of junk and mock it appropriately.

  7. I wonder if it will occur to anyone that this is basically the same as blogging about a product for which one earns a commission (affiliates!) without disclosing that fact.

    It is a difference of degree, not kind.

  8. Dudibob says:

    That’s an interesting view Aaron! I guess it’ll depend on which content route you go down on an affliated blog

  9. Tom says:

    Interesting post, thanks for the heads up. I do wonder though what the point of creating such unpolicable laws actually is. I guess it might stop the big companies falsely promoting themselves, but the millions of semi-amateur affiliate marketeers are certain to carry on as before… Does this also include fake forum posts then?

  10. Dave says:

    There have been some high profile cases in the past in the UK, my favorite being ‘Barry Scott’ representative of a certain cleaning product commenting on people’s blogs as if he was a real person.

    While in general it may seem unpolicable, I think people will be caught out, UK consumers are quite aggressive in going after companies that have tried to get the better of them!

  11. Spud Terkel says:

    They didn’t need to make a special law for this. Unfair competition law would have taken care of it. Now they basically screwed everone. Benjamin Franklin help create the United States under a fake name. Ever since then the U.S. Courts have supported anonymity in writing. This U.K. law is a giant step into the stone ages. What’s next, throwing you in jail for having an online avitar to sell t-shirts?

  12. Robert Frank says:

    The British Nanny State strikes again ! It’s never too late or too little to protect our moronic public.

  13. Rubie Goldberg says:

    THIS COMMENT IS A FAKE. SOMEBODY ARREST ME.

  14. What a stupid law! Newspapers, TV, journalists and books lie all the time. Even political and religious leaders (well, since they cannot all be right, some have to be lying).
    Those blogs were clever guerilla marketing ideas. What’s wrong with that?

  15. rishil says:

    I think you are right – the real implications stretch far enough after reading that very wordy legal doc – but IMHO the policing of these issues online are totally another matter – let alone the fact that the law wouldnt hold up if the practice is carried out by individuals from non EU borders. However, I see a potential for brand protection – maybe correcting online industrial espionage on the reverse of the way the law functions… maybe – but i need a lawyer to decode this law – I guess its time to forward it :)

    But thanks again for sharing.

  16. Ciaran says:

    Regarding the comments about celebs/PR companies – the point is that they are paid, and it’s implicit in what they do.

    Pretending to be a ‘normal’ consumer is a whole different kettle of fish and was never likely to be a long-term strategy.

  17. James says:

    Everyone who’s had a website that has reviews is likely to have written a few false ones to get the ball rolling – I’m sure all the big boys like Amazon, etc have done this at some point in the past… So this will now be illegal?

    Would love to know how on earth they are going to prove this! Another stupid, pointless law that will never be enforced, IMVHO.

    I’ll keep up with my fake profiles and reviews until I get arrested for it and proved wrong I think! :)

  18. Adrian Cooke says:

    [quote]The British Nanny State strikes again ! It’s never too late or too little to protect our moronic public.[/quote]

    Is that to imply that the British public is any more moronic than the US?

    I agree the nanny state is a problem – however, Europe’s old fashioned approach is admired by many. I loved seeing the likes of Microsoft getting slapped for anti-competitive conduct, which is apparently ok in the US. This indicates there is some sense left in the European establishments – and resistance to the complete subordination to big business.

    Just because the war can’t be won doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fought.

    This is unlikely to have much impact – but that’s in part because of the blurred line (between private individual, employee or marketer) and acceptance of the fact most sites are out to make a buck – often without disclosure. As with everything – it becomes a problem when it is either poorly done (as has been rife for years), and/or widespread – which has been rocketing in recent years. Some days it seems there are more people on the web to make money than actual genuine users.

    It’s only because the web is such a wild frontier with so many sheisters and little accountability that it’s become a place of such low trust. Ironic that the peak of human civilisation sould come to such a free for all – whereby your privacy is invaded by big marketing companies, and viruses/trackers/popups put on your computer by companies which are public listed (or of substantial size).

    We all know laws can’t really keep up with those who want to keep ahead of them. But I appreciate the effort/gesture of this – because not all users can see through the scams as well as we can. And I feel sorry and guilty for them, even though I have no involvement in anything vaguely dodgy. It’s the same with cold -calling, those that suffer or get ripped off worst are the old, the infirm or the desperate – those not informed or able to defend themselves. Back to the nanny state and socialism – I think that’s unfair and wrong and so I will happily support any action to prosecute or shame companies who get involved with taking the weaker members of society for a ride.

    If you haven’t seen BBC’s ‘rogue traders’, do. It’s just the thick end of the wedge.

    On the upside, I do see a bit more disclosure around these days!

    Sorry for rambling on.. ;) I feel much better with that rant off my chest.

  19. Dave says:

    @Adrian

    In the last few years we have had a huge upheaval in the kind of laws that have been passed in the UK to the point that our freedom has been severely limited, I call this place ‘the country of no fun’.

    While I think this law has some good attibutes, taken along with all the other new regulations we have it is quite suffocating and this is becoming a viewpoint that seems to be increasingly popular among the population.

    [A good example it was reported yesterday some guy got a criminal record for having a garbage bin that was full to the point the lid didn't quite shut tight]

    So for now as a web developer, I will ignore this and try to carry on as normal but know that I will keep an eye on content none the less!

  20. I have been doing quite a bit of work on these regulations including putting on a conference with the UK Government representative who has been drafting and advising them – we are running it again on 11th June in London (www.singlelaw.com)….pause there and laugh because on 26 May (I think, not 28th) when the UK version of the regulations are in force I will not be allowed to do that – merge the comment with some “advertorial” or subtle or not so subtle plugs for a service or product.

    It will be a criminal offence but probably used as a last resort for persistent offenders. I would not get too worried about it.

    If someone is outside the jurisdiction and happy to avoid holidays in the UK in future they may be able to avoid the strong arm of European Justice I suppose.

    Concerns in the UK have been over issues such as are “buy one get one free ” (BOGOF) offers still okay – yes they are. Being careful however to make sure what is “free” is definitely free. Issues over conduct of salesmen who go door to door -so training for staff is useful under the new regulations. A couple of companies have asked me to do some training in house on the regulations. Also viral marketing is likely to be a problem under the regulations. The Government has issued guidance and also updated its general guidance on “Price indications” so anyone interested in how this affects pricing of goods should have a look at that too.

  21. [...] Blogging Under False Pretenses to Become a Crime in the UK It’s official people. Blogging is a media force to be reckoned with – at least in the UK. Blogging under false pretenses is now illegal. This just goes to show how far blogging has come in the past 5 or so years. More reason for you to get in now while it’s still in the early stages. [...]

  22. shaun judy says:

    Great stuff! I think Flogs SUCK..Go get them fools!

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