requiring bloggers to disclose free gifts from companies whose products they review, came into effect on December 1st and the first major announcement of 2010 just occurred today.New rules from the Federal Trade Commission,
The Google Nexus One mobile phone was unveiled this afternoon and all the members of the press who were on-site for the announcements received free phones from Google. This is the most-anticipated phone to hit the market in years. It's like a unicorn sparkling with magic, perhaps. Almost no one at all has disclosed getting a free unit in writing their reviews.
The idea is that receiving free goods from a vendor makes a writer more likely to write positively about a product than they would otherwise. Readers deserve to know if a writer has a financial interest in the company or has received free stuff, so that the readers can take product reviews with gifts associated with a grain of salt. Some people believe that this is essential to safeguard the trustworthiness of media in a "new media" era, others believe it is unfair to small-time bloggers who deserve a chance to profit from their writing just like the pros do.
In this case, though, it's the pros we're talking about. Blogger Robert Scoble tells us that all the attendees were given a choice: receive the phone as a gift or sign an agreement to borrow a Nexus One on loan for 30 days. Scoble signed up for the loaner.
VC blogger Fred Wilson wrote in his post "I received a gift from Google. It was a Nexus One." Michael Arrington has said that TechCrunch will give away the phone he received at the press event. Scanning over Techmeme's survey of coverage, we're unable to find anyone else who makes mention of the freebie.
It may be the case that big-name tech review bloggers like Walt Mossberg or Engadget are just expected to always send back the review copies of things they get and so there's no reason to disclose on every post. (Here's Mossberg's ethics page, where he says he never accepts free gifts. He also makes more money than all but a few journalists ever have in history, for what it's worth.)
It may be that all the press who got a Google Phone today is planning on giving the phones back in 30 days. How should disclosures be handled though if you're writing an article and you haven't decided whether you are going to send something back as a loaner or keep it?
Here at ReadWriteWeb, we try hard to always make casual but clear mention when we have a financial interest in a company we are writing about. We try hard to mention the same if we are writing about a competitor to a company we have a financial interest in. And we always do our best to disclose it if we ever get free stuff from vendors we write about. That doesn't happen very much.
Sometimes the lines aren't clear, either. The community manager at Postrank.com sent me a sock monkey she made last year and I write about that company often. (I use it daily for essential work.) I've never mentioned that sock monkey before, though.
This is a phone made of pure sunlight and hype, though. Is it a poor reflection on the FTC's new disclosure requirements that so few have disclosed their free Google Phones, or is it a poor reflection on our group of tech bloggers?