Thursday, February 09, 2006
Blogging, Conflict of Interest and Disclosure
UPDATE: Free url for the WSJ story here.
Yes, there are stories to be written about the "murkiness" and "nuance" of the relationships of bloggers to their readers and to companies who pay those bloggers. But, Rebecca could not have picked a worse example than the Fon advisory board: We all were transparent about our relationship and not only is there no current compensation package for the advisors, we still haven't even discussed it with Martin.This might have been an interesting article. Instead, it imputes misconduct where there has been none and hypothesizes a trend using examples to the contrary.
I was one of the subjects of a story today in the WSJ (paid subscription required) on FON, blogging and compensation of FON advisory board members who also blog about FON. The story noted the blog buzz around FON's US announcement, and said that except for Dan Gillmor and David Weinberger, who explicitly mentioned the possibility of compensation for their role as FON advisors,
advisory-board members who talked up FON's prospects online didn't mention they might be paid by the company, though they did note they were FON advisers.Well excuse me. If I said, "I work for blablaco," wouldn't it be obvious that I was getting paid by blablaco? In my blog posting about FON, I said, "I am proud to be a member of FON's US Advisory Board." To me, this makes it obvious that I'm getting some kind of financial compensation. Do I need to disclose further? (If you think I should, please email me or leave a comment below!)
By the way, here is my full sentence in which I disclose:
I am proud to be a member of FON's US Advisory Board, but more than a bit nervous about how ready the FON implementation is for the general public.Does this sound like paid publicity to you? If it does, gentle reader, write to me and I will be happy to tell you everything. I have nothing to hide.
I think this WSJ story is made up news. Nobody ever discloses everything. When I say, "I took my dog for a walk," you don't need me to disclose what the dog did on that walk, do you? When I say, "My date and I went to bed," do you really need me to disclose what we did in bed? And when I say, "I'm on the advisory board of blablaco," do you really need to know the fine print of the advisory board agreement?
In the case of FON, the advisory board agreement doesn't even exist. There's been expressions of interest, a handshake, a lot of discussion and some vague (but trustworthy, in my opinion) statements by Martin Varsavsky, FON's founder, that the advisory board relationship will be formalized. I note further, that sometimes stock options or warrants can result in big US tax losses. That's compensation?
I pledge to you, gentle reader, to be transparent and open, to disclose when I have a business interest that might be a conflict, or even have the appearance of a conflict of interest. I'm likely to disclose my other interests too if I think they're part of the story. For example, I might say, "My friend David Weinberger is a great person." The disclosure, (we're friends) implies that this fact might influence my opinion that he's great. On the other hand, if I say that my friend Weinberger is an idiot, a smart reader might suspect that I'm not making that statement to curry Weinberger's friendship.
The statements I made about FON in my blog were my frank opinion, not paid publicity. I disclosed what was relevant. There's more above, made relevant by the current stupid Journal story. You want more? Email me we'll talk. No problem. Back off, WSJ.
There are two things in the article that I think relate to this.
First, Fon convinced a lot of very prominent bloggers--many of whom I know and all of which I know I respect highly--to be on this board. This wound up giving them great publicity when they announced the money. So that's part of the issue: and you disclosed that part.
Second, from what David and Dan wrote and from the article, it's clear that money has been discussed, just not in what form, how much, or when. It may be none and never. That's fine. But it's never clear that just because you advise a company you receive money. Money--even if unspecified--is both a conscious and subconscious inducement to change one's opinion. This is well proved in psychology studies, and isn't an indictment of an individual's integrity. Once you know there's money potentially on the table, exposing the bias through disclosure allows one to deflate that particular psychology balloon.
Finally, with Google, Skype, and two well-known VCs investing $21 million, it is simple to speculate by us outsiders that a substantial amount of money could be at stake if the founders of Fon are fair and the project goes exceedingly well. It might be $0 to $100,000. That's a big range.
Now I know and trust you and Dan Gillmor and David Weinberger to the ends of the earth to not subjugate your honest opinion to cold hard cash. But what if I don't know you? Disclosure avoids any issues.
Saying you're on an advisory board isn't enough outside of the friends and colleagues you know. To be credible in the age of blogging, you have to go the extra mile--no tax returns need be published, but simply stating, "I may receive some compensation (or none at all) from Fon" goes a long way towards clarity.
Two questions should be asked: What prompted the reporter to write the article in the first place? And, in light of how prominently the affiliations were displayed, how does she justify her comparison to the payola?
With regard to the first question it would be very disappointing to find a FON competitor (incumbent telco?) was the instigator without that being noted.