Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New Blogger Rules May (or May Not) be Much Ado About Nothing

A couple of weeks ago the FTC made the blogoshpere a slightly nervous place to post when the Associated Press published a story stating that bloggers must disclose products & payments received for reviewing various products or potentially face an $11,000 fine--set to take effect December 1st. I didn't particularly think this blog was in any danger because I'm a small, small fish. But it's hard not to get a little edgy when one recalls how the Fed went after "little" people who were illegally downloading music in the name of "setting an example." I don't know about you, but an $11,000 penalty would shut me right down for good. But the FTC is now working to reassure bloggers like myself that they're not interested in my little corner of the blogoshere. ~From Publisher's Weekly Mobile The Federal Trade Commission, which set the blogging world aflame two weeks ago with new guidelines governing truth-in-cyberspace-advertising, “never intended to patrol the blogosphere,” said Mary Engle, an FTC lawyer who addressed KidlitCon 09, a conference of kids’ book bloggers held last weekend in Alexandria, Va. “We couldn’t do it if we wanted to and we don’t want to.” Moreover, Engle said the revised guidelines are aimed at advertisers and marketers, not individual bloggers. She cited a Procter & Gamble campaign called “Vocalpoint,” which provided “400,000 moms” with free products in exchange for endorsements made via blog posts and tweets. Okay. But when you say you "couldn't do it if we wanted to," then why put up the regulations in the first place? Who, precisely, are you looking at? Are you going to go after those "400,000 moms" or the advertisers? I haven't heard of potential fines being levied at the advertising firms, have you? That's the question I'd pose. The article goes on to say. Coughlan said the furor over the revised guidelines was fanned by an interview with Richard Cleland, posted on the Reluctant Habits blog, in which the Consumer Protection chief made no distinction between product endorsers and arts reviewers, and in which he suggested that any item received by a blogger qualified as compensation unless it was returned after the review was written. “The word ‘compensation’ threw everybody into a panic,” Coughlan said. “Immediately people jumped from compensation to income to taxable income to the IRS. There’s a big difference between being paid money for posts, or being paid in product for posts, and us having to declare the value of books we receive, many of which are not solicited.” Either clarifying or backpedaling from Cleland’s statements, Engle said Saturday someone with a “personal blog, writing a genuine or organic review,” did not need to disclose how they got the book or assign it a value. “We have nothing to do with the IRS. I have no idea if you are supposed to declaring that as compensation. We were just looking for a word that wasn’t “paid,” because there are ways of being compensated for posts or tweets that don’t involve actual pay.” She was less sure about whether the earnings derived from links to indiebound.com or amazon.com needed better labeling. Is it me? Or is that still pretty vague? Sure, an "organic" review seems to be okay, but the question of "compensation" seems pretty vague. Is a free book "compensation?" Apparently we have to wait for the IRS to weigh in on the issue to be sure. The article ends with an even less clarification. “I think that’s harder, and we don’t have a hard and fast position on that yet,” said Engle, who wondered out loud if it was as clear-cut as a doctor who gets profits from the sale of medicine made by a company he has a financial stake in. “Is an Amazon affiliate program similar to that? Or does a reasonable consumer clearly understand that the blogger gets a cut from every sale? The examples that are at the black-and-white ends are easy but in the middle there’s a lot of stuff we’re not sure about yet.” For an article that was supposed to be reassuring to bloggers like me, I'm not entirely comforted. I don't think the FTC is ever going to go after me. But I do think the FTC is looking to regulate the internet to a far greater capacity than it has up to this point. Is that a good or bad thing? Depends. I'm all for tracking fraud and criminal activity on the web, but should bloggers who receive a few products for review be included in that category? Seems to me that there are a lot worse things going on in cyberspace and policing that activity (like cyber-stalking, child porn etc.) seems like a far better use of Federal funds. But is there any profit in that? At this point I think the Fed is looking at the Internet as the unknown frontier of potential revenue (as in taxes). Blogs have become surprisingly effective marketing tool, which is why bloggers like myself are regularly approached to feature certain products. Word of mouth spreads really well across the Internet. But it goes way beyond marketing, in my humble opinion. It cannot have escaped the notice of the Federal government that larger, more influential blogs, have turned many of the news networks upside down. Major political stories are now being broken by The National Enquirer and political sites like Big Government and, like it or not, the major news networks and the White House are being forced to acknowledge these stories-- pretty much against their will. I think this is what the new regulations are really about. But can the FTC, or any other Federal organization, control the net? I'm a little blogger who gets a few books. I'm not someone the FTC should worry about, and I'm sure they won't. But there are more and more bloggers who are taking on politics and it's proving to be very profitable for some. Granted, not every Joe Schmoe who writes political opinion is going to make a name on the net. The vast majority don't. But people are increasingly getting their information on the net. No matter what your political bias happens to be, you can find a site, a very profitable site, that will share your view. YouTube is being used more and more as a means for various campaigns to push their agenda. I'm not suggesting the government is trying to control free speech through taxing revenue. That's too much of a tin-foil-hat wearing conspiracy for me. But I think the FTC is seeing a means of communication that is way, way out of their control and financial crackdowns are the first steps toward taming the beast. I think this is what the Fed is looking to monitor and potentially control and the worries of little bloggers like me are little more than a tempest in a teapot. At least, as long as I don't post something "news worthy." So, I'll disclose the books I receive, just in case. And track the pennies I earn in advertising. Just in case. But really, I'll be watching the news and waiting to see the direction in which the Fed dedicates their efforts in the near future. Something tells me that the bloggers who come to the attention of the Fed aren't going to be writing scifi reviews. We'll see.

4 comments:

Steve Malley said...

I don't know what to think: On the one hand, it's easy to see the current language as a result of human fallibility. On the other, the language may have been left intentionally broad to 'leave the door open' for whatever develops next. I just don't know...

SQT said...

Steve-- I think they may not know. The web has turned into something I think none of us could have predicted and I think the government is trying to baby-step their way into some kind of oversight. But I think they're going to find that harder than they anticipate.

Charles Gramlich said...

I haven't given it much thought. I hardly ever review books sent to me by authors anyway.

SQT said...

Charles-- I think this is a non-issue for most people. But I get a lot of unsolicited ARC's and if I have to start claiming them as income, I'll tell the publishers to stop sending them, as would most reviewers, which would have a chilling effect on the amount of press the products get. I don't know if that is what the FTC is trying to do but I'm pretty sure that would be the large scale outcome.