My two cents on the new FTC guidelines
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.