The Interactive Advertising Bureau's President and CEO has called on the Federal Trade Commission to rescind its new "blogger rules" because they create an unfair distinction between traditional media and online media. More specifically, they revoke from online media a First Amendment protection that's afforded traditional media for generations.
In an open letter, Randall Rothenberg writes:
For the 400 members of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, most of which are small and medium-sized enterprises struggling to build their businesses in the face of the worst decline in marketing spending since the 1930’s, the implication that online social media represent a separate class of communications channels with less Constitutional protection than corporate-owned newspapers, radio stations, or cable television networks is of particularly grave concern.
At the heart of the matter are the payments and freebies that online media - specifically bloggers - might receive in the course of their work. Consumers need to know, as the argument goes, if the author's work has been compromised by a freebie. And then the FTC imposed new rules that specifically listed bloggers.
Also see: The FTC's guidelines raise ruckus, but are (mostly) unenforceable
Here's the thing. Most traditional media reviews are based on the use of loaner products. When I was a tech reporter back at the San Jose Mercury News back during the dot-com fever years, companies used to send us stuff all the time, in hopes that we would write about it. We returned a lot of stuff - but some things never made it back. Some stuff was donated, some given away and I'm sure I still have old gadgets hidden in boxes somewhere in my garage.
Did I ever disclose that I didn't pay for the products I reviewed? In some cases, I'm sure I did. In other instances, it was so obvious that it went without saying. Did the fact that it was free influence what I had to say about it? Not once. Never. And if it had, I think you would have been able to tell. And that's worth thinking about.
The credibility of the blogger is what's most at-stake for many of them. If they lose credibility, they lose readers, then traffic, then money. It's that simple. Most know that it's not worth a few freebies and those that don't know it will eventuially ralize it. RI like to give some credit to readers, who are smart enough to see through tainted content and are savvy enough to find another source to replace it.
I'm not arguing that the some form of checks and balances of content - especially as it relates to false and deceptive advertising - isn't necessary. I agree with what Rothenberg writes here:
All of us would agree that false and deceptive advertising should be stopped, and penalized when it slips through and is caught. We agree that paid testimonials and endorsements should be labeled. But in taking business ethics and attempting to give it the force of law, the Commission is stretching the definition of remuneration to ludicrous lengths. More frightening – certainly to the 22,000 womens-issue bloggers” on BlogHer, the 218 sports-fan facilitators on SB Nation, and the 302 people Tweeting to me daily – is that the FTC’s new Guides open the door to extremely selective pursuit and prosecution of those least able to defend themselves against government's hammer: the solo entrepreneurs and opinionated individuals who are most vital to the functioning of our democracy and economy.
I'd sign my name to that.