October 08, 2009, 1:13 PM — 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.)
[ Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]
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: