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Who's that selling at your (online) door?

Viral marketing continues to rise, spurring efforts to demand disclosure on the origin of content.

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When his identity was unmasked, Mr. Mackey was taken to court for unethical market manipulation. Mr. Gillmor suggests that while legal action is one way to deal with deceptive behavior, the court of public opinion may be more effective.

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"Reputation is so much more important to a public company," he says. "I'm a Whole Foods customer but now, after I know what the company tried to do, I would think twice about shopping there again."

The WOMMA guidelines address the core concerns for the Digital Age – transparency and trust, says strategist Young. And the three key words for any online marketer these days are relationship, opinion, and identity. Companies must disclose the relationship they have to the message, whose opinion they're actually voicing, and their real identity.

What's at stake is far more important than a single transaction. One disillusioned consumer can reach a vast universe of fellow shoppers in a single message, Young says. "A company's reputation is so much more important than a single sale, it doesn't make sense not to be transparent in the digital world."

This observation is echoed again and again by online business strategists.

"It's so easy to bust people online these days … they just can't hide," says Doc Searls, a fellow with Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. "It's beyond me why anyone would even try to hide who they really are."

Among countless examples of so-called "online identity reveals" is last year's outing of Dan Lyons, a Forbes magazine staff writer, as the author of a fantasy Web diary known as "Fake Steve Jobs blog."

"Why not figure out better ways to be ethical in business instead?" asks Mr. Searls.

Unethical and deceptive practices have existed for a long time in the analog world, of course. But they are "migrating and adapting to the new digital environment [while] the tools for combating it in cyberspace are still being created," says New Knight Center's Gillmor.

He is leery of governmental intrusion into the Internet environment. "If it means stepping on the First Amendment, I'd be completely against any kind of government oversight," he adds.

An educated and empowered consumer is a far better countermeasure against astroturfing, he and others say.

"We all need to develop a healthy skepticism and the ability to question messages we receive on the Internet," he says.

Monitor intern Alison Tully contributed to this report.

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