FTC to Bloggers: We Don’t Trust You

ftcBloggers’ opinions now matter to the FTC, at least in terms of controlling what we say:

The Federal Trade Commission today announced the latest revisions to its “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” revealing that “bloggers” and other “word-of-mouth” endorsers must now disclose “connections that consumers would not expect,” such as free product or cash in exchange for review.

First of all, that’s far, far too many “quote” “marks” for one paragraph.  So I’m going to have to control how they use quotes if they’re going to get all pushy about how I blog and perhaps fine them.

You know what?  Forget you, FTC.  If I was a paid blogger, that would be one thing.  If I worked for a game company who hosted this blog, sure, you might have some leeway there.  But I’m just a guy, jotting down whatever I like, and you don’t get to come into my house and start shoving me around as if my opinion suddenly mattered.

This is a really weird ruling.  It says that if I receive a free product or a free service and then review it, I have to explicitly state that I was given this product or service for free.  Up front disclosure and all that, at risk of an $11,000 fine if I don’t.

On one hand, I understand why this is important.  Nobody likes a shill who lies through their teeth just because they were given a product for nothing, and feel as though they have to reciprocate with a few kind words.  Honesty is the best policy, I agree.

But where this chafes is that, up to this point, bloggers have been relegated to some weird sort of minor league status in terms of journalism.  As in, we’re not or we’re wannabes.  But suddenly, when there’s money to be made with fines, our opinion is now very, very important and worthy of monitoring for false endorsements or what have you.

You can argue that this is aimed at bigger blog sites, and it most likely is, but that doesn’t mean the smaller guys are immune to this ruling.  This ruling extends to any “word of mouth” marketers, which means, technically, if a company gave your Aunt Bea a new type of toothbrush and she raved about it to you without disclosing the fact she got it for free, then she’s liable for a little FTC smackdown.  Oh, and you Twitter users?  You are also liable.

It chafes because the tone of this whole thing assumes that bloggers are inherently dishonest and liable to give a positive review in exchange for a free product.

It chafes because this is the internet, and you can’t police people’s opinions.  Especially since, the last time I checked, the internet wasn’t entirely under FTC’s domain.

It chafes because this entire ruling is incredibly vague, especially in defining “traditional media” vs. “bloggers”.

And it REALLY chafes because “traditional media” doesn’t have to disclose whether they purchased the product or were given it by the company, just because:

In general, under usual circumstances, the Commission does not consider reviews published in traditional media (i.e., where a newspaper, magazine, or television or radio station with independent editorial responsibility assigns an employee to review various products or services as part of his or her official duties, and then publishes those reviews) to be sponsored advertising messages. Accordingly, such reviews are not “endorsements” within the meaning of the Guides. Under these circumstances, the Commission believes, knowing whether the media entity that published the review paid for the item in question would not affect the weight consumers give to the reviewer’s statements.

So in summation: traditional games journalism is the bastion of stalwart honesty, and all bloggers who receive a freebie once in a while are filthy liars who need to be bled dry by fines.  Awesome!

P.S. – I like what Hot Air had to say about this: “[This ruling] treats blog readers like idiots who are in constant danger of brainwashing by bloggers.”

P.P.S. – Watch how FTC’s Richard Cleland dances around the vaguities of this ruling, and has difficulty making clear distinctions between various situations.  That restores my faith in the government.

35 thoughts on “FTC to Bloggers: We Don’t Trust You

  1. theerivs October 5, 2009 / 3:08 pm

    I want to rip off a head mortal kombat style now. Oh wait Video games made me violent.

  2. Buhallin October 5, 2009 / 3:18 pm

    I doubt very strongly this is directed at average bloggers.

    What it’s directed towards, IMHO, are pure astroturf operations. Fake bloggers who put up glowing reviews of something to try and get some positive viral spin going. I doubt very strongly that the U.S. Government is looking to fix the deficit one $11,000-poorer blogger at a time.

    But never mind, we have cause for outrage!! HULK SMASH!! TORCHES! PITCHFORKS!! RAAAAR!

  3. Syp October 5, 2009 / 3:20 pm

    @ Buhallin – It doesn’t matter whether it’s “directed” at average bloggers or not, because it still affects them and holds them to this ruling.

  4. Mesar October 5, 2009 / 3:26 pm

    And I bet the U.S. will push more of these garbage, Hollywood I.P. laws down the throats of every other country that has to trade with them….

  5. Green Armadillo October 5, 2009 / 3:31 pm

    “But suddenly, when there’s money to be made with fines, our opinion is now very, very important…”

    By the time the courts are done with this, there is absolutely no way that the Federal Govt will end up in the black on this operation, nor is that at all the point. (The fact that they’re going to have to spend our tax dollars defending this joke in court is a separate, and highly valid, complaint.) The size of the potential fine is not a money grab, but rather an attempt to make it large enough to deter the companies who are actually paying for this stuff in the first place.

    This ruling comes out of a few high profile cases where an already high-profile blogger suddenly went whole hog in endorsing a specific product and it turned out that they had been bought and paid for. I’ve heard tales of marketing companies that actually pay people to create sleeper agent forum accounts on gaming sites, posting regularly over a period of weeks so that their shill reviews will appear to be coming from trusted members of the community rather than newly registered spam accounts.

    The distinction with traditional media, on the other hand, is largely inexcusable, and exists entirely because real journalists are owned by real companies with real cash with which to sue the FTC.

    Again, though, it’s a moot point because I’d be shocked if this thing is successfully enforced in the courts.

  6. Tizlor October 5, 2009 / 3:54 pm

    Police states are put in place to protect you Syp. To protect you!

  7. Hiryu02 October 5, 2009 / 3:58 pm

    I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m all for responsibility in media as a sometime-blog writer, but the assumption that we can not be relied on for an honest opinion is patently unjust and without precedent.

  8. spinks October 5, 2009 / 3:58 pm

    I think I’d be so thrilled if I did get a freebie that I wouldn’t care. Besides which, how on earth will they enforce it?

  9. Rog October 5, 2009 / 4:04 pm

    I think some of what the FTC is trying to do is curb the sock puppets, which are a wee bit out of control.

    I completely agree however that traditional media is given a pass, when they’ve also been heavily subject to the huge rise in astroturfing lately.

    Frankly, those sort of online marketing methods, where they scream the extremes to be heard over the masses, or flood, or just flood and scream at the same time– I’m blaming them for the overall meanness of online communication that’s taken over lately.

    I’ve been around this wide ‘ol net since before the web bits and it’s always had its flamewars and spam, but they’re beginning to reach a crescendo. I’ve been kinda wondering where it goes from here. A backlash trying to control things from government bodies, that’s not surprising.

  10. Buhallin October 5, 2009 / 4:08 pm

    Actually, I don’t believe it does. Maybe technically it does, but in reality, not so much.

    The FTC does not have an investigative arm. They don’t troll the internet looking for bloggers to smash. They respond primarily based on complaints. I think it’s rather unlikely that there is going to be a rash of complaints against you, or most bloggers, because of this even if you *GASP* break the rule.

    I can understand if you feel the need to get indignant on principle, but the odds of this actually changing anything at all in the blogosphere are pretty slim.

  11. Maladorn October 5, 2009 / 4:12 pm

    Even if we stipulate that the ruling is today directed at some kind of shadowy corporate conspiracy to dupe the blog-reading public (a rather small sub-section of the general population), the rule is still on the books. Today it’s product endorsements, tomorrow it may be political books or documentary movies. It should always raise red flags, no matter what your personal policy positions are, when a government bureau starts regulating what can and cannot be said and in what way. Especially when the regulating body isn’t even subject to an election every now and then.

  12. Hambone Hamlet October 5, 2009 / 4:16 pm

    Bloggers should disclose if they received an item for free if they are reviewing the item.

    As I reader I want to know if you received a game or year long sub to it for free while I am reading your review and yes it will factor into if I believe your review of the game especially if I am new to your blog.

  13. Dickie October 5, 2009 / 4:20 pm

    I wasn’t completely onboard with the rant until they segregated the bloggers from the “journalists.” So they guys that get paid to receive free items are OK, but those of us that are given free items and do what we do out of passion are near criminal?

    My biggest issue is companies routinely give stuff away to writers, blogger or journalists or other, as part of their marketing strategy. Even if they get negative reviews, they are getting press. And when it comes to blogs, they are looking for links as well, which helps their SEO. So to blame the bloggers for a companie’s marketing plan seems just silly.

    Now, the question then becomes someone that writes for, let’s say Massively. We all recognize them as bloggers, because they… well, blog. But they get paid for what they do, regardless if that’s a minimal amount or not. So by their definition, are they now journalists and thus free from all negative manipulation?

    It’s really just an example of how government entities don’t quite get new media yet. They are learning, and I think this ruling is more of a speed bump thing. They’ll learn from it and hopefully right their ruling sooner rather than later.

  14. We Fly Spitfires October 5, 2009 / 4:36 pm

    I agree that in principle it’s a reasonable thing but, in practice, the whole thing is ridiculous. Amateur blogs have no official capacity and shouldn’t be subject to this kind of thing. It’s kinda scary when you think that the government is trying to control everyone.

    Just glad I live in the UK and they don’t give a shit what we say 🙂

  15. Rog October 5, 2009 / 4:38 pm

    In fairness with that opinion that I should disclose I’ve worked in traditional media (specifically at Electric Playground for ~5 years) and most of them would be reticent to disclose the materials and perks they receive.

    It’s not the same as outright shills though, there’s a big difference between that crooked practice and a reviewer who’s job is to review. Even though the advertising revenue pays the review business, most reviewers I know (and that’s on a personal basis) are still honest fans of games and they’re generally opinionated when they dislike something, regardless of their advertisers.

    Most gamers online however, probably think it’s a big deal just to get the game for free.

    Most would be shocked at how many games are sent to the magazines and tv reviewers. While I was working at EP, it was over 1000+ games per year, more than we could possibly even plug in to play. And yes, press goodies, swag and perks would come too.

    I’ll disclose right now that I never paid a dime to play Meridian 59, Ultima Online and Everquest. My introductions to those games were on press accounts. It didn’t make one whit of difference to my opinion of the games. I shouldn’t have to disclose that info though, because it may lend an impression of bias that isn’t true.

    I despise the shills and astroturfing.

    I’m not against bloggers being required to disclose any perks. Traditional media should as well though, which would make some people go berzerk if full lists of goodies were actually compiled.

  16. canazza October 5, 2009 / 4:47 pm

    I wonder if WordPress will add a little section to the bottom of each blog with an “If you have recieved any incentives that has prompted this post, please enter them here” field.

    I’m fine, It doesn’t affect me, I’m in the UK, although with our current state of Government I’m surprised we didn’t think of it first! This is just another example of Pollitico’s not ‘getting’ the internet. The internet is the *definition* of free speech. Regulating it is nigh on impossible and enforcing those regulations *is* impossible.

  17. Eliza E October 5, 2009 / 5:31 pm

    This is ridiculous. Most blogs now are ad-supported or contain product links that yield commissions to the blogger, does that mean that any time said blogger mentions anything featured in his ads, he has to precede it with “full disclosure”?

    Last time I checked, the vast majority of independent blogs barely made enough money off of these kinds of ads or product links in reviews to cover their hosting costs.

    Seems to me that it’s just another case of the government trying to protect people from due diligence and personal responsibility.

  18. Werit October 5, 2009 / 6:42 pm

    In a perfect world, people wouldn’t hide such things. The same applies to advertising and other endorsements. It’s the fine print which now also applies to blogging.

    How is any of this even enforceable? Who will bring suit? How will the FTC demand information from hosting companies that may not be in the US?

    I’m not really concerned, as I would be up front with that information in any case.

  19. Tesh October 5, 2009 / 7:19 pm

    Well, y’know, Big Brother doesn’t like it when people have non-approved opinions. This doesn’t touch the mainstream media because they are already under the thumb of controlling interests.

    I cannot impute good motives to the FTC on this one. Even the feel-good “we’ve got to protect those poor blog readers from nefarious business interests” doesn’t ring true. (And it’s none of their business even if I believed them.)

  20. Codpeace October 5, 2009 / 10:59 pm

    I don’t think this ruling is all that bad. Well, not great, but definitely not up there in the “Emperor Palpatine” level. In the end, this really only will affect American Bloggers (who likely make up a VAST majoirty) due to limitations with the FTC. Basically, it is trying to prevent companies from setting up their own blogs praising this product or service, and posing and wrongfully presenting themselves as some guy with a computer.

    I don’t think bloggers who receive freebies are filth. Hardly. I am sure MORE bloggers would like to receive the occasional benefit (more than just peer approval anyway), however, if you praise a product or service and get it for free, it helps if the reader knew if you had ulterior motives.

    What it comes right down to in my opinion is that Blogging and Journalism AREN’T the same thing. Journalism provides certain benefits and protections for both the writer and the subject (First Amendment and Libel) while blogging can (in most cases) provide anonymity to the writer and very little recourse for the subject.

    Blogging in some cases (I think of you in this instance Syp) is BETTER than most journalism. It is still not, however, held by public opinion to be the same. That may change one day. Only time will tell.

    Great article Syp…again, better than journalism…funnier too!

  21. Professor Beej October 5, 2009 / 11:33 pm

    I think it’s just ethics. It’s unethical for a spokesperson to claim he or she isn’t endorsed. It’s unethical for reviewers to deny they get perks for writing/talking about products. It’s a given.

    The same should, and now does, apply to bloggers. But there are those of us who get random perks (my first came in the form of TPAC opera tickets for tomorrow night if I write a blog about my experience), who while we’re definitely not “big boys,” we have enough of an audience that our honest matters. We’re not just writing for ourselves, and we should hold ourselves to some level of professional integrity.

  22. victorstillwater October 6, 2009 / 5:27 am

    So… if I play a free MMO, I have to be upfront and say that it was not a gift to me by a company, and that they have not given me mickey mouse money with which to pay for a subscription?

    While this doesn’t directly me concern me as I live in a different country, I find the notion of this revision disconcerting.

  23. cirdanx October 6, 2009 / 5:53 am

    U.S. Government…nothing against the people living in the usa (i have some friends over there) but damn i´m happy that i don´t live there when i read such things. What happend to the right of “free speech”?

    Doesn´t matter though, if the think they can somehow regulate or control such things they are totaly disillusional.

    Kinda reminds me of the fuss they made about the blogs from soldiers.

  24. Squirt October 6, 2009 / 8:33 am

    I think many of you are confused. This law is not about free speech. You can write and say anything you want. You can blog away about how great or how terrible a product, service, or game is. The law states that you should disclose any endorsement you receive to blog about a product

    The difference between blogging and Journalism is that Journalist has a code of ethics and is paid by the news agencies they write for. This gives them a certain amount of independence and credibility. Most Journalists are not out in espace doing product reviews and endorsements. Most bloggers are.

    I am actually surprised that this is a surprise to so many of you it has been in the national news for the last couple of months. National Public Radio did an article on it not to long ago.

    This law is aimed at certain bloggers that have huge followings, certain mommy bloggers come to mind. Who are receiving large amounts of free merchandise and payment for their reviews and endorsements? The readers of these blogs are being naive and believing the blogger is impartial and independent where in fact the bloggers opinion is being influenced by the compensation they are receiving. It is human nature to be more forgiving of a product if it is free.

    I think what has got you, Syp and other bloggers, so upset with this law is that it calls your credibility and ethics into question and if I was a blogger I would be pissed about that too. But there are many bloggers out there that lie by omission, half truths, or lead us down a path to come to a false conclusion. I have seen bloggers who delete or change the comments of the people who visit their blogs and post dissenting opinions to theirs. I am sure you have seen it also.

    The best way to prevent government regulation it to regulate yourselves, something the blogging community should consider is to get organized and come up with a code of blogging ethics that you could post on your site as a testament to your credibility and independence. Now you might say, I should not have to, but if you don’t it appears that the government will do it for you.

    I for one think it is a stupid law, unenforceable, and goes against the first amendment rights. But on the other hand I think it is important for bloggers to be forthright and let their readers know when they are giving a review of a product or service they received for free or were paid for.

  25. Capn John October 6, 2009 / 8:43 am

    @ Victorstillwater, to put it simply, no, it is not necessary for you to make such a statement as disclosure appears to be required only if you DID receive some form of compensation.

    As it is impossible to prove a negative the onus is not on you to prove you did NOT receive any form of compensation but on the FTC to prove that you did. This is the basis behind innocent until proven guilty.

  26. tarisai October 6, 2009 / 10:28 am

    I don’t like it.

    I live in the UK and don’t really blog on a regular basis nor have I ever received something for free to reveiw; so really it doesn’t concern me in the way that it affects free speech as others have stated.

    What it does affect, is my ability to draw judgement from a review. If I know for a fact that there is a possibiltity someone has been paid off (as will be evident by their disclosure made in accordence with this law) then how am I supposed to draw any sort of judgement from a positive review? There’ll just be doubt.

    I’m not saying that ignorance is bliss here. I’m saying that this sounds like a deliberate means to bring nothing but doubt into positive reveiws of gifted produce.

    I can think of a thousand conspiracy theories that will apply here but I fear I’ll be perceived as somewhat flippant.

    What I can’t get to grips with is the purpose of this law. Stop making people make ill informed decisions? Stop people from fabricating opinions?

    Self awareness/education and morality are not enforcable by law and the thought that many policy makers and politicians actually think this is the case is depressing.

  27. theerivs October 6, 2009 / 1:09 pm

    Off the bat, I think my readers know I’m a whore, and have no credibility. I can’t get anymore honest then that. 🙂

  28. Scarbigrot October 7, 2009 / 6:11 am

    They are slowly cutting our freedoms one at a time. I heard somewhere that we were the 6th free country in the world. Kindof a bummer really.

  29. Melf_Himself October 10, 2009 / 7:24 am

    I thought you were just having an unfounded whinge before I read this:

    “And it REALLY chafes because “traditional media” doesn’t have to disclose whether they purchased the product or were given it by the company, just because”

    That’s ridiculous that they would hold people who are basically doing volunteer journalism to a higher standard than the people who stand to really profit from it…

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