Note to Mooching Yelpers: the Government Could Potentially Fine Yo Ass

Categories: Law & Order, Media
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The Federal Trade Commission released new, rather confusing rules this week to smack down bloggers, social media users, famous Tweeters and other online pundits who don't disclose getting money or free schwag from companies that they write about. Some have interpreted the new rules to anyone who didn't disclose tainted reviews could be subject to an $11,000 fine.

Many in the online world are incensed that, in some cases, the FTC rules that will go into effect December 1 seem to be harsher on the Internet than on traditional media. For example, newspapers, including ours, are inundated with reams of free books to review each week, a fact that usually goes undisclosed in the printed review.

Yet we couldn't help wondering how the threat of a massive fine might affect the reviewing-by-the-masses giant in town, Yelp. One Yelper brought the issue up on the Web site's message boards this week, though not many joined in on the discussion.

In an Utopian Yelp kingdom, it would have very little effect, since the Web site already has a disclosure policy on its books, which the company sent to us when we requested comment on the new FTC rules:

"Of course it's ok if you were given something for free or at a discount independent of your review, but you should always disclose any special treatment, gifts, or discounts in your review."
Furthermore, Yelp outright bans reviewers from accepting free things with the understanding that the Yelper would then go write a five-star review.

Yet when we reported a feature on Yelp earlier this year, it became clear that the Yelpers operate on the honor system. Many were very serious about staying independent, and would rail against any Yelper who would accept freebies in exchange for good reviews. Reports of the undisclosed freebies usually came from the business owners. One restaurateur said he'd usually send over free drinks to people he'd identified as Yelpers -- some which may have been disclosed in the resulting review, some not. One florist said he'd sent Yelpers free bouquets in hopes of getting good reviews, and, in at least one case, it was never noted in the critique.

Now the honor system would seem to have the teeth of federal law behind it. But don't expect a rogue Yelper to be smacked with a heavy fee anytime soon. In an article by IDG News Service, the assistant director of FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, Richard Cleland, said the agency would be more focused on warning the bloggers, and leaving the fines and penalties to the advertisers.

"In terms of bloggers, we're primarily focused on education," he told the news service. "There are hundreds of thousands of bloggers out there. It's just not practical to deal with them on a case-by-case basis."

The message: Yelpers, carry on like usual.
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