“PatHMV”, in the Volokh comments:
…make no mistake, these regulations are broad. It’s not just that Joe has to say “I got a free bottle of detergent to review,” when he reviews that detergent. No, the FTC will have the authority to fine Joe if P&G [Procter & Gamble] periodically sends him free bottles of detergent or whatever and he ever writes about ANYTHING that P&G produces, even if they didn’t actually give him that particular product for free and didn’t even ask him to write that specific review. How much free stuff before that obligation kicks in? The regulations don’t tell us; it’s up to a “case-by-case determination” by FTC officials.
I don’t know much about detergent-blogging, so let’s substitute a couple of fact patterns more relevant to news, opinion and public affairs blogging. It’s been much asserted of late that it’s no particular burden to disclose when mentioning a newly published book or quoting from a newsworthy speech that the publisher sent you a review copy or the conference-giver let you into the hall on a press pass or its equivalent. But the regulations clearly contemplate broader disclosures than that. At some point, acceptance of such benefits will be deemed to create a relationship that must be disclosed even on other occasions, when, say, you mention an author or a nonprofit institution in a different context six months later.
An editorial in today’s New York Times, despite a bit of concessionary fluff about not wanting “to hamstring the ability of bloggers and twitterers to report and comment about the world,” enthusiastically endorses the new rules. It says not one word about the dangers of overbreadth, de minimis triviality, chilling effects, or selective enforcement. Nor (unlike the L.A. Times’s far more nuanced editorial) does it inform readers that the FTC is proposing in some respects to regulate social media more stringently than traditional media outlets such as the Times itself. Here’s the analysis from Citizen Media Law:
As noted above, a particularly remarkable feature of the “material connections” disclosure requirement is that it apparently does not apply to traditional media to the same extent that it does to online media.
The FTC’s justifications for this distinction are not entirely clear, but they appear to rely on two assumptions. First, the FTC assumes that traditional media exercises “independent editorial responsibility” in writing reviews and that bloggers and social media users may not. The FTC even suggests that reviews published on “an Internet news website with independent editorial responsibility” would be treated like those published in a traditional brick-and-mortar periodical. Guides, at 47 n.101 (emphasis added). Second, the FTC seems to assume that freebies for traditional news reporters are “reasonably expected by the audience,” whereas freebies for bloggers and influential Twitterers are not. These assumptions may be justified when the comparison is between sleazy buzz marketers and much of the traditional press, but they’re less convincing when the comparison is between serious online commentators and the offline press.
World-turned-upside-down alert: Daily Kos is making sense on the topic of how book reviewing works.
And: Daniel Kalder of the Guardian Books Blog speculates on why the NY Times’ editorial “purred with approval” of the new regs in such an “impressively superficial” way.