Is this a story or an ad? It matters.
I went to Radio Shack today to buy wires and plugs to hook up my iPhone because the damned car radio has no plug and the damned FM kluges don’t work. I bought the wrong wires, realized it immediately, and returned in minutes to exchange them. Radio Shack, as it its irritating habit, demanded my phone number, name, and address. I refused. It was a cash exchange. The guy hassled me and then, on the fourth attempt, finally told his computer that I’d refused, which he could have done in the first place. I cursed myself for not going to Best Buy, where they don’t take your blood type to make a transaction; one of the reasons I like Best Buy is its no-nonsense return policy. They care about satisfied and returning customers over irritating rules. I tweeted that here. Now I’m blogging about it.
OK, so I just said something nice about Best Buy and something critical about its competitor. Look on my disclosures page and you’ll see that I had a business relationship with Best Buy. A few weeks ago, because of my book, they paid for me to come speak to various groups over two days (which I quite enjoyed and which taught me a lot about retail, which I’ve been contemplating and want to write about).
So is what I just said about Best Buy an ad? An endorsement? A testimonial? Or just a story and my opinion? I leave that to you to decide and trust you with that decision. My integrity and relationship with you depends on what you decide. I disclose my relationship for that reason. I believe in transparency and recommend it – in my book – to companies, governments, and journalists. So is this story an ad for my book? That, too, is up to you to decide.
But now the Federal Trade Commission is getting in the middle of our relationship. It has issued vaguely worded rules – amazing that they’re still vague after 80 pages – that make we wonder and worry whether my disclosure is adequate – should ever tweet carry a caveat? – and whether Best Buy will make my observations accurate (what if they give a customer a hassle on a return and that customer complains I misled him?). Best Buy, in turn, might need to worry about what I say about them.
Note that if I were writing for The New York Times – if I were, say, David Pogue – the FTC would not regulate my speech in this manner. First Amendment, you know. The press. But as a blogger, I am now a second class citizen in my speech. The government casts its net over all citizens who now use the tools of the internet to publish – no, to speak. This is a corollary to the debate that’s going on right now over who should be covered under a federal shield law. Who should be under the FTC’s net?
On this blog, that’s my problem and I can handle it. But what about all the huge proportion of the population who are now using the tools of the internet to publish – or what publishers and governments would call publishing when most of them think they’re just using blogs or Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or what comes next so they can talk with their friends – what about them? Now they have to worry about missteps.
Some of you have argued that the FTC is going after deceptive bad guys and that’s good. But what are the unintended consequences? What if one of those unsuspecting “publishers” falls for PayPerPost as Pied Piper and becomes human spam but the FTC sees her as a flim-flam mom? Some of you are pointing to the FCC saying it won’t be mean and it can’t enforce all its regs anyway so we shouldn’t worry – yes, selective enforcement, that’s comforting. But another FTC guy said absurdly that people who review books should return their review copies or they could be in trouble. Which is it? You could be the one person who was fined huge amounts of money because your kid pirated music in your house; you could be the example. Don’t want to take chances? Figure you’re playing it safe?
Welcome to the chill. We all have our own FCC now. Broadcast is an exception to the First Amendment’s prohibition on regulating the press. Now bloggers are, too, because we’re not the press. But we are, aren’t we? See, there are bigger things at stake here than just a few fake Viagra ads. (Mind you, I’m not endorsing Viagra. It’s not working … yet. Now how’s that for disclosure?)