That's not just my usual free-speech paranoia barking. The Arnold & Porter blog concludes that the FTC is likely to "define 'endorser' broadly and companies may be wise to begin inventorying to whom they are, directly or indirectly, providing free product."
Allowing these guidelines to take effect would be like giving the government a no-knock warrant to investigate hundreds of thousands of blogs and hundreds of millions of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter users for … saying nice things about goods and services. Cleland tells Ad Agethat a restaurant employee who gave his eatery a good review on Yelp would have to disclose. Given the billions of opinionated postings on the Web, there would be no end to FTC's work.
Because of a pesky thing called the First Amendment, the guidelines don't apply to news organizations, which receive thousands of free books, CDs, and DVDs each day from media companies hoping for reviews. But if the guidelines don't apply to established media like the New York Review of Books, which also happens to publish reviews on the Web, why should they apply to Joe Blow's blog? Regulating bloggers via the FTC while exempting establishment reporters looks like a back-door means of licensing journalists and policing speech.
Nobody likes deceptive advertising or fishy bloggers. But I'd rather wade through steaming piles of unethical crap on the Web than give the FTC Javertian powers to pursue shady advertorial. This is one of those cases in which the government's solution is 10 times worse than the problem.
Addendum, 8:15 p.m. Ron Hogan has his own list of hypotheticals for the FTC.
Jeff Bercovici also waves the First Amendment flag over the FTC guidelines at Daily Finance. He's very good. Flag me at email@example.com and montior Twitter feed for evidence of payola. Come and get me, FTC coppers! (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)