By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News
Have you come across any sock puppets or astroturfers on the internet lately?
Astroturf is fine on football pitches, but not on the web
If you're a casual user of the web, you may not have a clue what that means.
But if you're a blogger who specialises in online comment about business, whether as a consumer or a campaigner, the question will probably have you seething with frustration.
Not so long ago, it was fashionable to celebrate how the internet had empowered the customers of big companies, with dissatisfied consumers taking their grievances to a mass audience through blogs.
Optimists have spoken of the way in which the "one-way street" of corporate communication has been replaced by a "conversation" between businesses and ordinary people.
But at the same time, some firms have been trying to con the consumer by pushing their own propaganda on websites while pretending to be the voice of the people.
WAYS TO MISLEAD ON THE WEB
Astroturfing: Attempting to use websites to create a false impression of grass-roots support for something
Sock puppetry: Posting entries under several different names to make something look more popular than it is
Companies caught out posting these bogus blogs - or "flogs" - include Sony, L'Oreal and Wal-Mart, while a whole vocabulary has gradually emerged to describe their actions.
Now, however, this kind of tactic has been ruled an unfair commercial practice by Brussels.
From 26 May, any UK firm breaking the rules may face prosecution, stiff fines and possibly even jail terms for its staff.
"This brings in a new concept of fairness, a brave new world for businesses dealing with consumers and advertising," says lawyer Phillip Carnell of CMS Cameron McKenna.
"If marketing companies are going to try and be sneaky, that will now be a strictly liable criminal offence."
The term "astroturf" is particularly appropriate for such stunts, since they are intended to look like grass-roots campaigns, but are in fact entirely articifial.
One of the most notorious examples now dates back nearly three years. In April 2005, the French firm Laboratoires Vichy, part of the L'Oreal cosmetics empire, produced a fake blog called Journal De Ma Peau (Diary of my skin), in order to promote Peel Microabrasion, an anti-wrinkle product.
It purported to relate the experiences of Claire, a woman who used the product and found that it improved her skin. But Claire did not really exist - she had been invented by an advertising agency.
The company received so many complaints that less than two months later, it revamped the blog, replacing fictional Claire with six real-life female bloggers who described their genuine experiences with the product.
But that didn't stop other firms falling into the same trap.
The following year, a blog called Wal-Marting Across America, apparently produced by two ordinary citizens on a cross-country road trip, turned out to have been sponsored by the US retail giant.
Shortly afterwards, it was Sony's turn to be embarrassed when it was revealed that the electronics giant was behind another "flog".
The site, alliwantforxmasisapsp.com, had masqueraded as the work of an amateur hip-hop artist who was trying to persuade his cousin's parents to buy him a Playstation Portable games console for Christmas.
Wal-Mart is among firms that have fallen foul of the blogosphere
Matthew Yeomans of Custom Communication, a company that provides advice on social media marketing, says it is no suprprise that the firms behind such blogs were engulfed by what he calls "viral vitriol".
"Companies are bending over backwards to seem more authentic, because people have been turned off over the years by the sense of a faceless corporation," he says.
"Once you have a company that's deliberately trying to pull the wool over the eyes of its customers, then you're not treating them with respect, and customers react very badly to that."
Ever since those now-defunct sites collapsed in ignominy, firms have been understandably wary of sponsoring fully-fledged fake blogs.
But there is still plenty of scope for company employees to post bogus evaluations on websites that solicit product ratings from consumers, using multiple aliases - known as "sock puppetry".
The EU's Directive on Unfair Business-to-Consumer Commercial Practices, a far-reaching attempt to regulate the whole relationship between firms and their customers, makes all these online tricks illegal.
Many EU countries are already enforcing its provisions, which should have come into effect last year. However, the UK is only now incorporating it into domestic law.
Not only companies, but the relevant employees themselves can also be held liable. The punishment level starts at a £5,000 fine, but in more serious cases, the fine can be unlimited and prison sentences of up to two years can be imposed.
Firms that try to be puppetmasters will face prosecution
As well as fake business blogs, the new rules cover any website devoted to public ratings of goods and services. For example, hotel staff who post favourable reviews of their establishment on travel information websites such as TripAdvisor will now be committing a crime.
But will the law actually succeed in outlawing such practices? Mr Carnell thinks not.
"The people that are enforcing it are trading standards officers. The chances of them having the wherewithal to police this are slim," he says, adding that the law is likely to be reserved for high-profile cases that annoy a lot of people.
"The rewards of doing it and not being caught are huge. The best kind of marketing is when you're not aware you are being marketed to," he says.
"If it's the sort of business that will take a risk and not worry about the customers that they trample on, then they may never be caught. But upstanding companies will know that they cannot market themselves online without being very clear about what they are doing."