FTC cracking down on Astroturfing in Apple App Store

A poster depicting a cartoon monster crushing the words "peer review."

The time has come for the FTC to go after Astroturfing monsters that haunt App Store reviews. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Gideon Burton/Flickr)

Apple has a good thing going with the App Store, the place for iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad applications. Various financial estimates place Apple’s annual profit at more than $400 million, and some consider that estimate to be conservative. But apparently that money has done little to motivate Steve Jobs and company to make the App Store an honest place for techies to shop. Astroturf marketing – where makers of applications festoon their own products’ review sections with fake glowing reviews – appears in abundance. This makes determining which apps are worth buying an undue challenge. According to the New York Times, the Federal Trade Commission has had to intervene.

FTC pressures Reverb Communications to settle Astroturfing case

California marketing company Reverb Communications and key executive Tracie Snitker have agreed to remove all fake app store reviews from iTunes. Reverb faced charges of deceptive advertising as a direct result of the company’s policy of encouraging its employees to write and post positive reviews of its clients’ games from November 2008 to May 2009. In turn, Astroturf reviewers were paid for their reviews. The 60 game production clients of Reverb during that period included noted software companies Digital Leisure, Harmonix and MTV Games. The FTC settlement forbids Reverb and Snitker from “making similar endorsements of any product or service without disclosing any relevant connections,” according to the Times.

Snitker denies Reverb did anything illegal

Snitker said in a public statement following Reverb’s agreement with the FTC that Reverb admitted no legal wrongdoing, but simply wanted to cap its legal fees from the ongoing battle. However, recent FTC rules that were believed to be targeted specifically at bloggers participating in product endorsement payola apparently also get started things like App Store reviews; the FTC simply hadn’t begun to enforce the law in full yet.

Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain says the FTC’s move will promote truth in advertising online. “This case sort of shows that what they have in mind is not the individual blogger or Twitterer, but rather a professional endorser. When a client says ‘Where are my good reviews?’ you can say, ‘We can’t do it because it is illegal.'”


New York Times

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