The FTC has announced guidelines (PDF) that will lead to officials rules concerning disclosure requirements for bloggers. These rules as I understand them mean that anyone that reviews a product must disclose any relationship to the producer of the product. Now I basically agree with the intent of the rules. I participate in Thomas Nelson’s Blogger program which gives me free books in exchange for a review. Every time I have reviewed a book from Thomas Nelson I have disclosed in that review that I received the for free from Thomas Nelson. I have not said, but in every case so far I have given away the book. (I only give away physical products, if it is a digital product, there is a chance that it could be distributed inappropriately because these books have always been non-DRM books).
So while I in practice I think I more than meet the disclosure requirements that will be required by the FTC, the fact that it will be required only of bloggers seems inappropriate. (I do think there is a First Amendment issue here, but that is not my issue.) Mainstream media will not be required to follow these policies. It seems that according to current thinking (these policies are currently guidelines and the final rules are not yet written) if someone is being paid to write reviews they will not be required to disclose on the assumption that the companies that they work for have appropriate disclosure requirements already. This is not the case. There have been some very high profile cases of newspaper tech writers receiving thousands of dollars of goods and services that were not disclosed until challenged.
I do understand that many of the small bloggers are influential, and I understand that many small bloggers do not have what I would consider proper journalistic disclosures about the receipt of free goods or services. However it seems like it might go beyond that. According to an interview with Richard Cleland of the FTC, these disclosure requirements might also be required for indirect payments and income. For instance if you review books but have an affiliate link with Amazon, you might need to disclose all of those links as well because even though the free good is not from a publisher but is income generated for what is essentially advertising. What about inline advertising with Google (where Google generates ads based on what your posts are about)? How would you disclose something that you don’t have control over?
What will happen if these rules are passed? I think it is likely that some publishers will stop giving away promotional books to blogger and only work with mainstream media. That will not accomplish what the FTC seems to want to accomplish.