Posted in: Technology

Is the FTC being used to marginalize independent bloggers?

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See that line in the sand?

The one that was drawn yesterday by the FTC and their new <gag> guidelines </gag> about bloggers having to disclose any and all interactions with advertisers, book publishers, movie companies that might result in a review being written about a product, a movie or a book. The result of failing to do this could result in a fine of up to $11,000 for the blogger and or provider of the item to be reviewed.

In effect the grassroots of blogging just got weed whacked all to hell. Not to mention that there is a shitload of FUD being spread around and some important questions being left either unanswered or obfuscated by enough legalese to choke a horse.

Yesterday I asked some of those questions in a post here as well as making a few comments on blogs that were talking about the subject. One in particular was a post by Daniel Tunkelang, a blogger who I hold in high regard, were he was comparing the points raised by posts made by Jeff Jarvis and Google’s own Matt Cutts. Now to be clear here – Matt Cutts has come out solidly on the side of the FTC rulings which he made clear in a comment on Jeff Jarvis’ post:

As a Google engineer who has seen the damage done by fake blogs, sock puppets, and endless scams on the internet, I’m happy to take the opposite position: I think the FTC guidelines will make the web more useful and more trustworthy for consumers. Consumers don’t want to be shilled and they don’t want payola; they want a web that they can trust. The FTC guidelines just say that material connections should be disclosed. From having dealt with these issues over several years, I believe that will be a good thing for the web.

You can read the complete comment stream at Daniel’s blog but when I posted my comment I also pointed to the inequity over the fact that bloggers are being held to FTC guidelines for exactly the same thing that newspapers (traditional media) has been doing for years but without any FTC oversight.

And thus began the FUD courtesy of Matt Cutts in his reply to me:

“If the FTC thinks that this is a problem then why are not those in traditional media having to play by the same rules”

The same rules do apply to traditional media, and that’s how traditional media interpreted the updated guidelines. For example, the WSJ said “The [FTC] move is an effort to apply the same rules that already cover broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines to the Wild West marketplace of the World Wide Web.”

As for David Pogue on neither his private page full of links to his books and other assorted stuff – not a disclosure to be found and the same goes for his posts on The New York Times. Walter Mossberg has a single blanket “Statement of Ethics” which seems to work for traditional news journalists/reviewers but from what the FTC says this wouldn’t fly for independent bloggers. Kara Swisher also sports almost the exact same “Ethics Statement” as Walter but again this wouldn’t fly for indie bloggers who are expected to have a disclosure with every post that the FTC deems needs to have one.

The problem is that there is no FTC guidelines like the ones that have been enforced on bloggers and there has never been any. I have spent the last three hours scouring the web for even the slightest proof that the FTC has any purview over traditional media in the same way that they now have over independent bloggers (this will become an important distinction shortly).

In fact these are some of the quotes I have found that suggest otherwise Mr. Cutts

Never mind that TV, radio, and print publications have never had any such disclosure requirement (and still won’t).

Source: Business Insider – FTC Issues Ludicrous Blogger Disclosure Policy

The problem here is that mainstream media journalists receive goods for free on a regular basis, and only rarely is any relationship disclosed. There may be a line (mostly) between directly paid content and editorial in newspapers, but there is a wealth of other ways companies court attention from the mainstream media. It also doesn’t have to be goods: how regularly are journalists offered free trips to conferences and events, and at such events they might receive free goods, accommodation, food and even entertainment? It doesn’t even have to be that extreme: a free lunch or drinks could all be counted as indirect compensation by this criteria.

Source: Duncan Riley – The InquisitrFTC targets bloggers, ignores newspapers

These new guidelines have nothing to do at all with established traditional media, and to a certain extent with the new media conglomerates e.g.: TechCrunch, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, VentureBeat. This was made abundantly clear in a quote from Michael Cleland, assistant director for the FTC’s division of advertising practices in a post by Robert Wenzel of the Economic Policy Journal blog where a telephone interview between Edward Champion and Cleland.

Cleland informed me that the FTC’s main criteria is the degree of relationship between the advertiser and the blogger.
“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.

As to why newspapers don’t need to be regulated the same way that scummy bloggers do comes out in this quote

But why shouldn’t a newspaper have to disclose about the many free books that it receives? According to Cleland, it was because a newspaper, as an institution, retains the ownership of a book. The newspaper then decides to assign the book to somebody on staff and therefore maintains the “ownership” of the book until the reviewer dispenses with it….

To which Robert Wenzel quite rightly points out the following

Note: Cleland is completely clueless if he thinks reviewers’ copies from mainstream media don’t end up with reviewers and then sold. All he has to do is walk into Strand’s bookstore in NYC. They have half their basement devoted to current books that have been sold to them by reviewers.

Another good point that was brought up by Jane over at Dear Author – what are the trigger points that will spark the FTC to come down on you like a ton of bricks?

As it is the FTC is making Twitter a prime example of where disclosure is going to be watched for but what about affiliate links. After all how many people who have reviewed books add a link to Amazon or Barnes and Noble that include affiliate links so that they can make a few bucks. Are we going to have to disclose those and any other affiliate links we might use – say for advertisings?

So regardless of the FUD that people like Matt Cutts like to put forth the fact is that traditional news organizations are not being regulated by the FTC. In fact it would also seem that major blog networks like the ones mentioned about may even be exempt from this type of watchdog behavior.

In all that I have read so far everything to do with the new FTC guidelines have to do with independent bloggers, much like when I write over at Shooting at Bubbles or at WinExtra but maybe not so much for here at The Inquisitr since it seems there is a dividing line between being a paid writer and being a writer sucking up for freebies.

Other than the FUD being thrown around I still haven’t seen any solid answers to my original questions from yesterday

1. Will these same ‘guidelines’ be applied against “traditional media” and if not – why not?

2. What exact form do these disclosure need to take? Per post? Per page? Per comment?

3. Is this retroactive? Does this mean that sites like Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Mashable, – well every single blog past and present will have to go through all their archives and add a disclaimer. Because we all know that posts that are even months or years old can resurface.

4.Will book publishers make signing a disclosure form a part of bloggers doing book reviews and is it really worth the effort at that point?

5. Does the country of origin of the writer matter as to whether a disclosure is included?

6. Does it matter the country of origin of where the blog served from come into play?

7 Does the country of origin of the product, service or book come into play at all?

No, all we are being left with is a threat to play nice by a totally different set of rules that either traditional media and possibly big blog networks or face the threat of being fined into oblivion.

Talk about stacking the deck.

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