Friday, October 16, 2009

FTC ... and Me

As are most of the bloggers in Blogland, I'm keeping my eyes on the FTC. For some reason, they're cracking down on product endorsements on blogs, and it is rumored that things are going to get mighty uncomfortable for book reviewers. I happen to be one of those book reviewers, and so I might find myself a little uncomfortable. I guess we'll see what the upshot is by the time we're done, but in the meantime, I'd like to share a few thoughts.

1. The first Amendment of the Constitution grants me freedom of speech. I have the right to say, or write, anything I like, whether in private or in public. I have the right to blog about whatever I want to blog about, and if I write something that offends my readers, they can either comment about it or they can stop reading my blog. We have the freedom to share our thoughts and opinions. We don't have to like what others say, and we don't have to agree with them, but the right to say it is protected under the Constitution. Right now, I'm going to use this freedom of speech I've been given to say that limiting what a blogger can blog about is unconstitutional.

2. I think the FTC is worried that if bloggers are given free products, they'll write a really glowing review about that product, even if it's crappy. Well, anyone who's been reading my blog for more than about thirty seconds knows that I say what I think. If something stinks, I will tell you it stinks. In fact, last week I met a friend's new husband for the first time, and he said, "You're the opinionated one." Yessir, that's me. I've never written a glowing book review for a book that didn't glow, and I don't intend to start now. Giving me a free book does not entitle you to a good review. Now, I have been known to contact the sender of a book and tell them I'd rather not review it, because anything I said would be largely uncomplimentary, but I've always passed the copy on to another reviewer or discarded it at the publisher's request. But don't be fooled into thinking that free books will win my loyalty. It takes chocolate to do that ...

If the FTC would like me to post a disclaimer on my blog, stating that I received the book for free, okay, I can do that. It'll take me roughly thirty seconds. But if it goes further than that, and we are regulated as to what we can and cannot blog about, that's going to get mighty uncomfortable for the FTC. You can't just run around violating constitutional rights and expect people to be happy about it. So yes, I'll be very interested indeed to see how this all plays out. I'm hoping it's a whole lot of brouhaha for nothing.


Jordan said...

The First Amendment doesn't give us an unfettered right to say or write absolutely anything we like. There are standards and consequences by law for everything that we say.

The classic example of yelling fire in a crowded building, "fighting words" (a legal term. Seriously.), libel, slander, etc.—NOT protected speech. (I.e., they're subject to more regulation, punishment, we're not free to say them, etc.)

There's actually a spectrum of protection for speech. Most protected (i.e. most "free") is political speech—despite what some people in the government now seem to think, we have the utmost right to agree with or criticize the government. We have a right to be wrong, even (just ask people who disagree with me ;) ).

Opinion is slightly less protected, but pretty high up there. Artistic speech is somewhere in the middle, with some exceptions (obscenity, the legal term).

Commercial speech is far less protected. (This is how the government makes advertisers tell the truth. If they had absolute freedom, nothing would stop advertisers from lying about their products or their competitors'.) And yes, product reviews are a type of commercial speech, though they obviously have more "expressive value" than a commercial we see on television.

There's a big difference, however, in requiring bloggers to disclose free products (kind of--the onus is on the advertiser, allegedly) and telling them they can't blog about those products (or anything else).

Thus, the FTC would be overstepping some serious bounds if they ever dictate to us what we can and can't write about. They have not yet done this, and I sincerely doubt that they ever will—and should they make that serious of a mistake, I trust lawsuits will set them back on track in short order.

I think the big problem they're running into is some bloggers do give glowing reviews for free products, and some bloggers don't. Some bloggers guarantee a review, some don't. But I think, too, that they're opening a can of worms that they'll have no idea what to do with.

I think you're wise to post a disclaimer. Disclosing relationships and freebies is the safest route for now—and, let's face it, is it going to hurt us to be that honest?

Jennie said...

Amen! As a fellow reviewer, I object to anyone saying what I can or can't say about the books I review. Yes, I get the books free, but I'd hardly call them payment. I can't evaluate a product I don't know is out there nor am I going to pay for the many, many books I review--though I sometimes buy extra copies of ones I particularly like to give away as gifts. And if anyone mistakes my reviews for product endorsements they're not reading carefully enough. Besides if I only gushed about eery book's good points and ignored the flaws, I'd soon be out of business. My readers expect honesty and that's what I give them.

L.T. Elliot said...

I love you, Tristi. Thank Heavens for you.

Karen said...

Well said, Tristi. I had no idea that this is an issue. Party poopers.

Marta O. Smith said...

Good grief! If the government wants to crack down on something, why don't they crack down on really harmful things, like, for instance, pornography? People make money trafficking in that. They could regulate that right to death and I wouldn't mind.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Very good points, Jordan.

Yeah, it's pretty interesting - I sure hope it ends with just posting disclaimers.

Keith Fisher said...

The First amendment doesn't apply. Niether does the FTC. The only thing they can do is pressure the blog host to not allow it. As many politicians in the past have learned. this Internet thing is a world wide thing and cannot be regulated by our government.

The only thing they are worried about is getting their cut. if we can prove we are getting nothing for reviewing books, they really have no power.

no that I've said that, I admit I'm not informed and my opinions are like a grain of salt.

Weston Elliott said...

"if bloggers are given free products, they'll write a really glowing review about that product, even if it's crappy."

Do they really think that cable and network station advertisers are just wild about all the products they hawk for hire?? Good grief, if they start this on blogs, what are television stations going to do???? Besides, they have to prove I didn't absolutely love it - no matter how crappy it might be. I'm entitled to my opinions - unless the FTC has just changed it's initials to the KGB!

Nichole Giles said...

Well said, Tristi. I've been feeling much the same way. And if the FTC wants to claim that a copy of a book is considered compensation, they should try doing a book review first. They obviously haven't thought about the time involved in reading said book (at least five or six hours, usually more) or the time it takes to write a well thought review (around half an hour or more). And a ten dollar copy of a book is compensation? Whatever.

I'll be watching this too. Thanks for voicing this!


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