Bad news, freebie bloggers: The FTC is coming down on you like a tray of dishes -- and not just on bloggers, but anyone who uses social media. If you receive money or something for free and you blog, tweet, write up a positive review on Amazon, or share something nice about it with your 4,987 closest Facebook friends, the FTC wants you to disclose that fact or face fines of up to $11,000.
In principle, this sounds almost reasonable. Nobody is well served when Big Bad Corporate America buys online endorsements. Which, of course, they do -- like when a rogue Belkin executive got caught offering to pay people to write positive reviews of the company's products on Amazon last January. (Though at 65 cents per review, they don't pay much.)
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Unfortunately, the FTC's 81-page guide has more holes than OJ's alibi. The rules are so confusing and arbitrary as to be entirely unenforceable. They attempt to create distinctions between bloggers and journalists (how about journalists who blog?) and between "traditional media... with independent editorial responsibility" and blogs that review products, which do not exist in the real world.
...a blog is only a method of displaying content. One that's used by everyone from college students to the largest media companies in the land. It has nothing to do with the quality of the content or the business model behind it. And the FTC doesn't explain what it means by the amazingly nebulous phrase "independent editorial responsibility." Is Technologizer not an "Internet news website with independent editorial responsibility" because it's published in blog format? Are the standards different when PCWorld.com, which is unquestionably an Internet news site, republishes Technologizer posts? Is USA Today's Ed Baig a different person when his words appear as blog posts than when they appear in a printed newspaper? The FTC either sees distinctions I don't or has failed to consider such scenarios.
When you get down to the rules of what actually constitutes material compensation, it gets worse. Ryan Singel of Wired's EpiCenter blog points out:
If a well-known dog blogger reviews dog food they bought, no disclosure necessary. If they review free dog food acquired through a coupon spit out by the supermarket's computer, no disclosure is necessary. But if the dog food company sends the blogger a free sample based on their review, both the company and the blogger are on the hook if any subsequent review doesn't include that info.
And if they eat that dog food -- because, let's face it, the average blogger makes about 12 cents an hour and that Alpo Chop House Filet Mignon looks mighty tasty -- they must disclose that as well. (Unless they're actually a dog, in which case they fall under the disclosure guidelines created by the ASPCA.)
PC World's Ian Paul notes the same things can apply to anyone commenting on blogs, in forums, and in chat rooms. They apply to employees of a company who become a "fan" of their employer on Facebook or say something nasty about a competitor's product on Yelp.
My prediction: In six months the Net will melt down after being overwhelmed by the volume of disclosures that are required. (And, I would like to add, I did not receive any compensation for that endorsement of Alpo Chop House Originals, nor did my dog, Apache.)
According to IDG News, the FTC says the guidelines mainly target advertisers; bloggers themselves are unlikely to get fined, unless they continue to post bogus paid reviews after the FTC has scolded them for it.
Still, better safe than sorry. So here is my full disclosure:
- At various press functions throughout the course of my career, I have consumed 1,237 boiled shrimp (with 157 ounces of cocktail sauce), 112 pounds of smoked salmon, 4,879 crackers, and 32,718 cheese cubes. No money was exchanged for any of these. I would gladly give them all back if I could.
- I have two bankers boxes in my office filled with orphaned AC and DC adapters for gadgets I do not remember ever having in my possession (and because 99 percent of manufacturers do not stamp their logos on them, there's no way to know where they came from). I have another four boxes stuffed with random USB, Ethernet, RJ11, and serial cables. Send me a big pre-paid shipping container -- or possibly a semi-tractor trailer with a driver -- and they're yours.
- I also have a shoe box full of review-unit cell phones I used for a week and forgot to return; they are now too old to do anyone any good, but I'm too embarrassed to send them back and feel too guilty to sell them, give them away, and/or put them in landfill. I'm thinking seriously of just blowing them up. Anybody got any C4 they can spare?
- My desk is dotted with several pairs of nifty-looking Bluetooth ear buds that have my DNA on them in the form of ear wax (I know: ewwww). Ditto for various MP3 player ear buds. The FTC is more than welcome to come to my office and collect them.
- I have received at least 217 company T-shirts featuring the dorkiest logos known to mankind. The ones I didn't give to Goodwill I used as rags for washing my car. I know I'm not the only one who did this. (Seriously, if you live in San Francisco or New York long enough you'll see homeless people with Ashton Tate and Corel on their chests.)
- I have downloaded at least 483 different free software programs for review, almost six of which proved useful. The rest clogged my hard drive, crashed my system, or both. So far nobody has paid me for the time it took to fix those problems, but I'm still holding out hope.
- At one time or another, I have owned 127 USB thumb drives of varying capacities that once contained press materials but were subsequently erased, reused, and lost. Some of them contained my vacation photos, so if you find one with pictures of a guy who's eaten too many cheese cubes wearing an incredibly dorky T-shirt, please send me an e-mail.
- Oh yeah: On one occasion, an extremely attractive PR woman rubbed up against me, but it's unclear whether she was trying to create a favorable impression for her client or simply reaching for her purse. (In either case, I remember it fondly.)
Ah, I feel so much better now. Thanks FTC, for letting me get that off my chest.
Got anything you want to confess? Have you tried that Alpo Chop House? Post your sins below or e-mail me: email@example.com.
This story, "This blog has been brought to you by the Federal Trade Commission," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.