Like James Gattuso, I have a lot of questions about the Federal Trade Commission’s new “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” especially as they apply to bloggers. (And over at Silicon Angle, Mark ‘Rizzn’ Hopkins has been doing a great job keeping tabs on the many questions and hypothetical situations that others have been posing about the new rules). But the one thing I just can’t wrap my head around is how the FTC plans to enforce these rules against those speakers or media outlets who have print publications which are fully protected by the First Amendment. So, I was pleased to see my favorite press critic Jack Shafer of Salon, ask the same question in his latest column on “The FTC’s Mad Power Grab”:
Because of a pesky thing called the First Amendment, the guidelines don’t apply to news organizations, which receive thousands of free books, CDs, and DVDs each day from media companies hoping for reviews. But if the guidelines don’t apply to established media like the New York Review of Books, which also happens to publish reviews on the Web, why should they apply to Joe Blow’s blog? Regulating bloggers via the FTC while exempting establishment reporters looks like a back-door means of licensing journalists and policing speech.
Exactly. Is the FTC just going to ignore such speakers or media organizations but enforce against everyone else? Isn’t that just a bit silly and radically unfair? Moreover, might such a policy end up incentivizing some folks to create token print publications to get around such the regulations? I doubt it, but you never know.
Regardless, as Shafer notes, the rules are so hopelessly open-ended and arbitrary that they are bound to pose problems for whomever they are enforced against:
The guidelines have to be read to be believed. They are written so broadly that if you blog about a good and service in such a way that the FTC construes as an endorsement, the commission has a predicate to investigate. The only way stay on the FTC’s good side is with a “clearly and conspicuously” posted disclosure of the “sponsors” who provided you with the good or service (or money) to blog about the good or service. As I read the guidelines, the FTC could investigate you if you did disclose but it was not satisfied with the disclosure.
I really do wonder if the FTC realized what they’ve gotten themselves into here. The enforcement nightmare associated with all this cannot be underestimated.