I got a fair amount of e-mail over the last week or so asking me what I thought of the Federal Trade Commission’s new guidelines regarding bloggers and their disclosures of relationships with advertisers (This is a pdf link to the guidelines, which go into effect on December 1). In the grand tradition of not especially well-thought-out governmental decrees, it’s not particularly clear what the effect will genuinely be for bloggers who get sent things to write about by hopeful companies, including (in my particular case) book publishers. Ed Champion tried to get clarification from an FTC spokesperson on the matter last week, to no real effect, and at the moment things seem a little slippy, in terms of what happens if a blogger doesn’t give appropriate disclosure.
For myself, I don’t think this is a real problem, since as a personal philosophical matter and from my experience as a professional journalist, I think disclosing biases and business relationships is what you should be doing anyway. I don’t think it’s any particular secret that the vast majority of the new books I talk about here (or feature in The Big Idea) are sent to me for free by their publishers in the hope I will make mention of them one way or the other; I also don’t think it’s any particular secret that much to the despair of my wife’s sense of order, I hang on to most of the books.
The idea that I will be materially swayed by the receipt of a book to speak glowingly about it is a little silly — some days I get a dozen books, so I would be spending all my time swaying — but I have no problem disclosing how I came into possession of books or other objects I discuss/review/vent about, and allowing readers to calibrate their expectations accordingly. That’s just good sense and laudable transparency. I may put up a permanent disclosure page just to have it, but then, I don’t really see this as much of a problem.
I do suspect in a general sense there needs to be clarification from the FTC as to who these guidelines affect, however. My sense of it is that if the guidelines are a tool to go after spam sites and the sorts of folks who are hoping to port payola into the online world, and to keep advertisers from crossing an ethical line, there’s not going to be much of an issue. If the FTC goes after some schmoe who got a free book from a publisher and wrote about the book without disclosing how he got it, I suspect the shit will hit the fan, and quite rightly so. Hell, I’ll be there flinging poo into the blades. My strong suspicion is the guidelines are intended for the former scenarios rather than the latter one, but again, clarification won’t hurt.
In any event, I don’t see this guideline changing much of how I do things here. I already disclose, and would even without the FTC prompt.