This morning the Federal Trade Commission announced a new set of rules specifically targeting blogs like this one. In short, the Federal Government says that *as of December 1st, 2009, all sample products sent to bloggers must be disclosed in any coverage of those products. Here's the press release about the rules, here's the full text of the current rules, and here's the document that outlines the new changes that will be added to cover bloggers and other New Media. (PDF)
While the execution of these rules was slightly flawed, leaving much ambiguity and unanswered questions, rules like this aren't necessarily a bad idea. The devil is in the details, but in general, I am supportive of this move.
If you'll forgive a little blogger navel gazing, I'd like to explain why.
First and foremost I hope this will reduce the steady stream of e-mails that I get offering to pay me in order to get me to write about some or another product. These are never wineries, but all sorts of different wine related products, from aerating decanter mechanisms to wine tote bags to every method of opening a wine bottle you could possibly think of.
Beyond eliminating some noise from my inbox, I think these rules are an easy way of dismissing the largely baseless claims out there that somehow wine bloggers are mostly paid shills, who subsist on free samples, paid blogging, and advertising from wineries. Such accusations are almost entirely bullshit, but like any slur they're motivated by some grain of truth. There probably are some bad apples in the blogging world that may see this ruling and the prospect of a five figure fine as an excuse to clean up their acts. But more so, this is an opportunity to point out that as of December of this year, wine bloggers will be more strictly regulated for conflicts of interest than any mainstream wine publication (these FTC guidelines don't apply to "traditional media outlets" for some bizarre reason).
These rules, of course, are designed to protect consumers from stumbling across reviews on the Internet and thinking they are fair and unbiased, when, in fact, they may have been written by someone who was paid to write them, who got free stuff to write them, or worst of all, they may have been written by the company itself. (The fact that there exist magazines where wineries can pay to have nice editorials written about them, apparently is not an issue for the FTC). The rationale behind this is quite logical, and it's the reason I have always disclosed when I am writing about wine that I received as a free sample.
In short, transparency is a good idea.
It's probably unlikely that the FTC will go after individual bloggers for violations of these guidelines, even though they now have the regulations to do so. Instead, they are much more likely to use them to go after the corporations who they deem egregious offenders of these rules.
This will likely cause many companies to think twice about sending out free samples, especially if they think they might be held to account when some random blogger they send a sample to forgets (or refuses) to disclose the fact that they got it as a sample. I know I've got a lot of people in the wine business as readers here, and by virtue of self selection you probably have sent samples to bloggers before. I'm interested to know if you're going to change anything about your samples policy in the future?
Enforcement may be difficult on either side of the freebie equation because the guidelines don't really specify what constitutes effective disclosure. For instance, it's not clear whether its enough to simply say somewhere on the site that occasionally free sample products are reviewed. And how the hell can you disclose a freebie in 140 characters? Yes, these regulations cover Twitter as well.
So what do you readers think of all this? None of the government's business? Just what the blogosphere needed? I'm curious.
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