A Stupid Disclosure

Effective December 1, 2009, according to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), everyone who expresses anything on the Internet that might impact positively or negatively on a commercial entity, must make a stupid disclosure if they've been compensated in any way for their comment, statement, endorsement, or whatever. For instance, let's say you get a free sample of some product in the mail or possibly a manufacturer's coupon to try the product. You try it. You like it. You tell someone on the Internet. Well, if you're at the end of the slippery slope, you could be fined by the FTC for doing so. Sound ridiculous? Well, frankly it is.

A bit farther up the slippery slope, there are many people who review photographic gear. They might receive a free sample of the gear from the manufacturer for the purpose of reviewing it. Then they review it and write about it. Personally I find their information useful, even though like any intelligent adult I recognize a potential bias. It all comes down to the credibility of the source. I trust some reviewers. I don't trust others. Anyway, the FTC is currently targeting those sorts of people (and many others). While I see some benefit from protecting the hopelessly naiive from their ignorance of the dynamics of the real world, I see a much larger hazard. Simply put, the government is now presuming to tell us what we can and cannot (or must or mustn't) say, write, or represent on the Internet. That's patently WRONG. We are supposed to be protected from this form of government control by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Anyway, as a professional photographer and web designer, I do receive various compensations (usually money) for what I do. Apparently the FTC wants me to disclose this. What to do? Well, I'm the first to admit that I'm a hopeless coward in these matters. I could take at least a few courses of action in response to the FTC regulations: (1) I could blatantanly ignore them, or even find some way to challenge them -- to make a point. (2) I could just keep doing what I'm already doing, and hope I'm far enough down on the slippery slope that the thumb of government won't slip too far. (3) I could comply with the FTC regulations in as subtly and minimally as necessary. Or (4) I could write this stupid rant on this stupid topic and have that be my stupid disclosure to all of you.

I choose #4. So here it goes, and if you get tired of reading all of this stupid disclosure stuff (and having your intelligence insulted), please feel free to skip straight to the last paragraph, which is where I draw this down to my point. (However, be warned that you will be bypassing important, FTC-mandated compensation disclosures that will warn you about how I might rip you off. Skip at your own risk.)

First of all, I'm a professional photographer. My clients hire me (pay me money) to take photographs of them, their places of business, their equipment, their products, and so forth. Because I'm being paid by them, I do my very best to represent the subject matter in its very best light. Indeed, I might even edit the images to make them even more flattering or positive. This doesn't mean I'm necessarily enchanted with them, their businesses, or their products. I'm often quite neutral on these things. Of course I won't do work to promote anything I find disreputable, offensive, or fraudulent. In any event, if I've done my work well, which I always do, then I've cast the person, product, or business in a positive light, hence my implicit endorsement. Don't be fooled, though. I'm doing this because they pay me money.

Second of all, I'm a professional web designer sometimes when I don't have a camera in my hands. The two businesses actually dovetail quite nicely. This is essentially the same issue, except that i'm sometimes paid to write things. This usually amounts to editing the clients' own words to make them flow; however, I'm sometimes hired to write things from scratch. For instance, I recently wrote a really great bio for a realtor. Honestly, it made the little hairs stand up a bit on my arms and neck. It was really good, and the realtor joked that it even made her husband cry! I didn't have any firsthand knowledge as to whether any of what I was writing was true or accurate. I simply interviewed the realtor, asked her to tell me a bit about herself, asked her for a bit of history, and put it all together in a brilliantly and passionately worded bio. Did I mention that she paid me money for this? As the author of the bio, the FTC might want me to disclose that this was a paid endorsement of sorts. Mea culpa. If you see something I've written on a website that's not mine, please understand that I was probably paid to do it.

Third of all, I often write things about commercial products -- usually camera gear. When I do this, it's always because I believe in the product. Now, I don't shamelessly solicit contributions of camera gear for me to review, as some photographic gurus do. Nor do any companies randomly send me any gear to review. (However, I would happily accept any gear that any companies care to send me. If Canon were to send me a free EOS 1Ds Mark III, I'd be happy to review it for them!) I buy all of my own equipment. I sometimes have unfavorable impressions of the equipment I buy and don't talk much about it thereafter. However, I usually research my purchases very thoroughly and, not surprisingly, am pleased with the products I acquire. I then comment on much of this equipment for other photographers. I feel they can benefit from my research, perspectives, and test results. How does any of this result in compensation? Well, sometimes I get a lot of web traffic resulting from my positive review. That's because people link to me. As any web administrator recognizes, web traffic has tangible value. It drives search engine traffic and ultimately lands me business. I recognize this. Although this isn't compensation from the manufacturer, it's still compensation, and it's motivation for me to promote things in a popular way. Now those who know me also trust my opinions and perspectives. They recognize that I don't let commercial interests bias my writings. However, there's at least one photographic "guru" who rather shamelessly makes dubious claims about equipment specifically to generate web traffic and solicit donations. Thus a desire to maximize compensation does shape/determine exactly what opinions he expresses. Anyway, I don't do that.

Here's where I hang my head in shame, because it's soooooo commercial. (The truth being told, I'm actually quite proud of it.): Recognizing that web traffic is good, I sometimes will contact someone about whose product I have a favorable opinion and negotiate a link. For instance, I really love my little Sonia optical slaves. They're cheap, they're robust, and they perform really well. (Hey, I'm even promoting them right now. Here's a link.) I told the Ebay vender who sold me mine that I wrote a positive little blurb about them and that he was free to quote me, so long as he provided links to my website. Yeah, that's compensation -- about as blatant as it gets. In fact it's exactly the same sort of stuff the FTC wants to crack down on. Seriously. I get a lot of search engine hits because of his countless links, which are sprinkled throughout every little $10 auction he has for one of these little units. He gets an endorsement and useful technical data that help him to sell his product, and I get web traffic. That seems a good and fair exchange. What's not mentioned here is that I really do like the little slaves he sells, and all of my test data are accurate. If I might make another self-serving commercial plug, I think it's things like this that make me an excellent web administrator. I do know how to get search engines to work in my clients' favor. Anyway, the FTC deems this evil, so you're duly warned.

So what's a poor professional to do? I write a lot. I make claims. All of my claims are sincere. I take photos and author web sites for others, and I make the claims for them that they want made, whether verbally or graphically. I never "sell out," promoting something I find objectionable, but my efforts in this regard should be construed as purely commercial. It's not my job to verify or even accuratly represent the claims of others. Rather it is their responsibility to ensure that the information they hold out to the public on the Internet is accurate. It doesn't matter whether I played any part in the representation of that information. Lastly, and most importantly, it is the responsibility of any person reading or viewing any of this information not to be stupid and not to take everything at face value. In the real world, there are honest folks like me, but there are also a lot of snake oil salesmen and crooks. Emptor caveat.

I don't want to lose the whole point of writing this incredibly stupid rant. The purpose is only incidentally to make my FTC-mandated disclosure that I have certain commercial interests and do receive compensations for the work I do. Indeed, the FTC might not even care about a small fish like me. My main purpose is to highlight how utterly ridiculous and oppressive all of this is. We are not a nation of children and should not be treated as such. However, we do claim to be a free nation, and the First Amendment to the US Constitution does guarantee us freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The FTC presumes to abridge those freedoms that the First Amendment clearly states shall not be abridged. That is wrong. As the rather Liberal sort of person I am, I've cut the Obama administration a lot of slack -- perhaps too much. However, our government keeps rolling along in its merciless campaign to gnaw away all of our civil rights. This insatiable hunger for absolute power seems to come from both sides of the isle, where our legislators have become unresponsive to the will of the American people. Sure, this is a small issue. They're all small issues. But they add up. The fact is that if we don't draw a line in the sand, we may not be able to call ourselves "free" much longer (if we can even apply that label to ourselves today). Yes, I'm complying with the FTC's regulations with this stupid disclosure, because I'm a law-abiding coward. However, I hope my intent is well understood that I am protesting these regulations as loudly as I'm able, without harming my small business.

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