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My two cents on the new FTC guidelines

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There’s a direct line between my post 2 summers ago about bloggers being manipulated by Rodney Strong, and this FTC clampdown on bloggers.

I spent all day yesterday pondering this, going back and forth in my mind. Good or bad? Everybody else had had their say: Alder Yarrow at Vinography, Tom Wark at Fermentation, Lewis Perdue at Wine Industry Insight, Reign of Terroir, and I’m sure many others. I read as much as I could (including the links to FTC that Alder provided), and suffered my worst case of MEGO since trying to wade my way through the IRS’s guidance on theft loss and carrybacks.

My first impression was, it’s really a drag when a government agency issues “guidelines” that are so opaque, few people if any have any idea how to comply with them. The unfortunate part is that the wine blogger community will probably have to wait for the heavy hand of the FTC to come down on someone before we fully understand what’s allowed and what isn’t.

I also had an immediate feeling that this was an over-reaction by the FTC. Granted, there may be a few bad apples out there (taking bribes, being paid to give a glowing review), but in general the problem doesn’t seem to be widespread, at least in the wine blogging community. As for me personally, I don’t think I have anything to fear from these new guidelines. I don’t review wine on this blog, and I don’t take advertising. So I’m pretty much immune (knock on wood).

Then I worried about a slippery slope. The IRS previously floated the idea of taxing critics for products and services they get for free for review purposes; will the IRS now follow the FTC’s lead and tax bloggers for unpaid samples? And what happens when the FTC goes after a blogger for some perceived infraction of the new rules? Does the blogger have to hire a lawyer to defend himself? Lewis Perdue opined that “Some [critics] just plain get too friendly and cozy with the subjects of their coverage.” Will the FTC begin looking into the precise relationships between critics and winery personnel to determine if some “line” has been crossed? Will bloggers be deposed under oath to swear that a free lunch didn’t induce them to sing the praises of a wine? And then there’s the question of legacy, or traditional print, media, that Lewis Perdue raised. Will the FTC now interest itself in wine reviews for print pubs like Wine Enthusiast? There’s an element of Big Brother here that disturbs me.

But over the course of yesterday, after much pondering, my thoughts began to shift. I realized that this new government scrutiny of bloggers is, in fact, an honor. The very fact that the FTC is so interested in blogging and its impact on consumers is proof that the government sees the importance of bloggers. After all, the Feds regulate only those entities that have achieved enough power to warrant watching. That’s quite an achievement, although it’s probably not quite the way that bloggers wish it had turned out!

And then I started recalling the “Rockaway” incident, and it dawned on me that this is really a much needed development for bloggers. It makes them accountable. It holds them to a standard, and up until now there have been precious few standards to which the blogosphere has been held. Just as legacy writers have employers, editorial policies and other obligations to adhere to, now bloggers for the first time must think before they commit words to the computer screen. That will help to professionalize wine blogging, and that is all to the good.

  1. “There’s a direct line between my post 2 summers ago about bloggers being manipulated by Rodney Strong, and this FTC clampdown on bloggers.”

    If there’s a direct line, it’s dotted – at most. And thin. I’m not going into it because I covered that one (what feels like 1 billion times) many, many months ago.

    Re: the FTC – How on earth would the FTC prove an influence towards positive coverage of a product based on a sample? It’s not possible. The only thing they *can* do is look for a smoking gun – i.e., record of payment from someone to a blogger specifically to cover a product without some form of disclosure on the blog.

    I expect David Honig to lend his Legal Eagle eye to this on PalatePress.com in the near future, I have a feeling this is all much ado about nothing.

  2. Joe: Hope you’re right.

  3. The issue is transparency. As a consumer of words and opiniions about all kinds of topics, I am a great fan of tranparency–and I see nothing wrong with it.

    I also believe it should be applied equally and ratably to all media, not just the Internet. The existence of editorial control does not guarantee an absence of improper influence.

    Let the rules for disclosure apply everywhere. If anyone has something to hide, then we are all better off knowing about it.

    If a wine reveiwer reviews wines with labels showing on $25,000 sponsored trips with his personal friend, we have a right to know. If a person extolling the virtues of a new Ford car has been given that car for free for a year, we have a right to know.

    And, as a member of traditional media, I have zero objection to having FTC rules apply to me as well. And Steve, while you work for a large organization, I am my own editor–as is Parker, Tanzer, Claude Kolm, Jancis Robinson. Editorial control, as some have suggested, at big publicatiions that take advertising sometimes gets confused with advertising.

    I am not making up that charge. I have seen it levelled here at WE. And while I think we all understand your position, having the standards of transparency apply to WE co-equally can only help fend off those kinds of allegations.

    Who said, “Know the truth and it shall set you free”.

  4. Is this a way of the Obama administration responding to traditional media’s cry for assistance and protection?

  5. Oh, and if the IRS wants to tax media samples, look out “Car and Driver”!

  6. Arthur: And all those travel writers who take free cruise ships to the South Pacific and stay at fancy resorts!

  7. I doubt if Obama had anything to do with it. Sounds like it burbled up from the mid-level bureaucracy.

  8. I think this ruling came about from some real happenings on the Internet of endorsements and promotions by people with ties to the companies or products. Although this is an an extension of the FTC becoming annoyed with the medical and pharma industry product endorsement celebrity tactics on TV. The claim is that it’s more insidious and simpler to hide on the Internet ties to companies and products that you are either paid to endorse or to promote for personal gain.

    Maybe the FTC doesn’t like the viral effect.

  9. Newest development in this story:

    IRS is now joining the battle against bloggers: http://bit.ly/MUkx8

  10. Of course, I meant a larger bureaucratic group rather than the president. There has been news of traditional media that the government somehow support or protect traditional journalism.

  11. Before anyone gets ruffled up Randy’s link is fictional…for now.

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  1. Two More Worthy Takes On Bloggers & The FTC | Wine Industry Insight - [...] My two cents on the new FTC guidelines, by blogger and colleague Steve Heimoff. Posted …

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