Friday, October 09, 2009

Not All of the Problems are Obvious

For the last few days, discussion about the new FTC explanations of certain regulations has been rampant. You can Google it. I don't have any links handy and I'm kind of in a hurry. Today's post is a case of random collection of tidbits of info and opinion reaching critical mass, requiring me to offer my own thoughts on the matter.

Hey, that could actually describe most of my posts!

Anyway, the basics are that the Federal Trade Commission has stated, among other things, that any blogger who reviews a book or other product and received that book or other product for free must disclose such receipt for free or face a potential fine of $11,000.

Some people have talked about the difference between paid advertising (i.e. guaranteed endorsement/screen time) and reviewing, where even if the person got the item for free, doesn't guarantee you won't get a total thrashing. Some have mentioned how even though we think this is unenforceable on a grand scale, all we have to do is come to the attention of the FTC (be reported by an enemy, for example), and come under fire.

Some people have asked what the big deal is, just say "I received this book for free." It seems pretty simple, doesn't it? But it's not. It's far more complicated than that, especially when some of the regulations apparently will hold the author liable if the blogger doesn't disclose.

First, "free" doesn't automatically mean the publisher or author provided the book. Free could mean borrowed from a friend or the library, it could mean it was the fifth book in a buy-four-get-one-free promotion. It could mean a charitable person bought the book and donated it to a prize basket raffled off to attendees of an event, completely without the publisher's or author's knowledge. Then there's that book-in-the-wild program, where you leave a book on a train or in a restaurant and track its travels.

Second, the FTC doesn't seem to be defining what a "blogger" is. If, as has been asserted in a few places, the FTC is aiming to control certain types of commercial bloggers who are inundated with free stuff but act like they're just regular users or something, that's great. Say so. But the blanket use of "any blogger" includes hundreds of thousands of regular people, most of whom will have no freakin' idea of this regulation.

Plenty of "book reviewers" aren't official reviewers, but normal readers who enter contests or ask authors for review copies. I often provide free copies of my book to places like The Romance Studio. Sometimes I'm given the name of the winner and I send the copy directly to them; sometimes it's part of a package and I never even know. But if they say "Hey, I liked this book by Natalie J. Damschroder" and don't say how they got it, I could be reprimanded by the FTC as the party who most directly benefits from that endorsement.

My mind just boggles at the scope of this. I mean, my teenage daughter could blog about Rosemary Clement-Moore's newest book and get fined for it, based on the vague, broad application of this regulation.

Okay, let me throttle back out of the hysterical paranoia a bit. The people at the FTC have a job to do, and they have a pretty focused view of what that (important) job is. They are targeting a certain segment of business and industry, a certain segment of the Internet. They probably had no inkling of the fog-like effect of their explanation, where it seeps into vast areas they might not even know exist. And enforcement IS going to be impossible, if by enforcement we mean making sure everyone who possibly falls under this regulation complies with it. I mean, are they really going to pay someone to patrol the Internet, pounce on a blog that mentions a book someone read, then force them to prove they paid for the book? Hardly!

Which makes this entire post probably pointless.


Cindy Procter-King said... brain hurts from reading this.

Must. Watch. TV.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

Sorry! :)

Cindy Procter-King said...

'Sokay. Making me think is good. I think.