Regulators Poised to Give Financial Institutions a Slap in the Facebook

This post was also written by Anthony S. Traymore.

A few weeks ago, Legal Bytes reported that, buried in the new financial services “reform” legislation, is the establishment of a brand new regulatory agency – the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (see Congressional Hammer Poised to Strike at Financial Advertising). Guess what. Not to be outdone, the regulators are in the act – pardon the pun – already. Witness recent statements by Richard Ketchum, Chief Executive of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). In recent statements, Ketchum acknowledged that Wall Street is eager to use social media like Facebook, Twitter and Linked In to interact with customers and, that to a large extent, the growth of the use of these sites is inevitable. But at a recent Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) meeting, he noted, “We continue to witness the advent of technologies that will challenge your ability to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements,” and “Social networking is one such innovation.”

At that same meeting, Ketchum raised the issue that retention functionality available on social media services may not be sufficient to ensure a financial service firm’s compliance with applicable regulations, including the FINRA Rules. If you aren’t a broker-dealer, don’t read the next sentence. But if you are: Imagine how social media services used by brokers to communicate with clients could impact FINRA Rules concerning Communications and Disclosures (see, Section 2200). FINRA has now set up a taskforce comprised of industry professionals to explore how firms may utilize social media to better communicate with their customers without “compromising investor protection.”

Such studies and evolutionary (or revolutionary) regulation are increasingly common these days. As our loyal readers already know, Legal Bytes reported previously (FTC Releases Updated Endorsement & Testimonial Guidelines and Rimon Analysis of the New FTC Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines), that the FTC’s revised Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising will become effective Dec. 1, 2009. These revised guidelines represent updates to the prior guides, and acknowledge the proliferation of false claims, phony testimonials, and spurious endorsements (or negative comments) by consumers, experts, organizations and celebrities, through the use of blogs and other “word of mouth” marketing tools. As described in a recent Wall Street Journal article, the SEC disclosure rules apply to Tweets, blog postings, wall postings and other communication platforms provided by social media sites. Other regulatory agencies are similarly seeking to address the use of social media sites by the entities they regulate (e.g., the FCC, the New York State Insurance Department).

Do you have a social media policy?  The complexities are enormous. Internal (during work) and external (non-working hours). Employees, agents, contractors and suppliers. Domain names, URLs and trademarks (which include service marks, for you purists in the audience). Approved content or ad hoc comments. Official presence or not – condoned or not. Today, activities outside the scope of employment are often considered not attributable back to the company absent special circumstances or relationships. Will social media break down those barriers further? If so, what can companies do to reach their customers while continuing to protect their most valuable assets – their employees and their brands? Does a company have the right to regulate conduct outside the workplace, even if it involves reference to the company? Oh, and by the way, you do know that social media, enabled by the borderless web, doesn’t really pay attention to national boundaries, AND that means it’s not just U.S. law you may need to worry about – even if you are a U.S. company. If you are an international, multinational or global company . . . good luck. No, not good luck. Call us. Our Advertising Technology & Media Law group has unparalleled breadth and depth in understanding, working with, and advising clients in this brave new world.

So if any of this is of passing interest, stay tuned. If it is or becomes a pressing need, please contact Joseph I. Rosenbaum or Anthony S. Traymore, and let us help you avoid being anti-social. Of course, if you are already a Rimon client, feel free to contact the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work, and he or she will be happy to coordinate your legal needs with us.