Just checked in with Techmeme after a few days of eggnog and tobogganing, and what did I find but another ethical dilemma brewing, this time courtesy of Microsoft (although Edelman appears to have played a role as well). I predict that the blogosphere-as-ethical-minefield meme will continue to be a hot topic in the year to come, if only because there seem to be a ton of unresolved issues, not to mention a vast difference of opinion on what’s right and what isn’t.

Reading through the various posts on it, like Joel Spolsky’s or Judi Sohn’s at Web Worker Daily — who wins the prize for my favourite headline, with “There ain’t no such thing as a free laptop” — and the comments on some of those posts, including the ones at Brandon LeBlanc’s blog (he got one of the free Microsoft laptops with Vista but didn’t say so for a few days), it seems as though some people think keeping the laptops is just fine, and others think it is a heinous crime.

As with many of the other ethical issues the blogosphere is wrestling with, this one also occurs in traditional media, particularly in the technology area, where reviewers are often given software and hardware to test. Sometimes the understanding is that the reviewer will keep it (if it isn’t of huge value), but in the vast majority of cases it is sent back. Are there reviewers who keep things they shouldn’t? Sure there are. Does it affect their credibility? Who knows.


Ed Bott thinks that bloggers should be able to keep the free laptops, and says he isn’t going to lose any of his faith in the credibility or trustworthiness of Brandon LeBlanc or Long Zheng as a result of them keeping it. His argument is that trust is something you build up over time, and that it takes more than a free laptop to demolish it — and I would agree, to a point.

But I also think that a blogger trying to build up credibility and win an audience is fighting an uphill battle to begin with, and accepting freebies without disclosing them is a very slippery slope, and that’s why my position on PayPerPost has also been that payment is fine provided it is disclosed. The FTC seems to agree, given its recent decision on word-of-mouth marketing.

As Tony Hung points out at Deep Jive Interests in this post on PayPerPost buying Performancing, bloggers want to be compensated and many people don’t see anything wrong with that, and neither do I, provided it is disclosed. Anything else, in my opinion, is on the slippery slope. If you think you’re able to keep your footing on that slope, be my guest — but don’t be surprised if you wind up at the bottom.

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Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

10 Responses to “Sure, I’d love a free Ferrari, but…”
  1. Sure, I’d love a free Ferrari, but… via Mathew Ingram: mathewingram.com/work December 29th, 2006 at 01:11

  2. Well said, Mat — well said.

  3. Nice post indeed Matt. Yup I’m on the bottom of that slippery slope. Unfortunately I did not intend to be there. I should have disclosed from the very first post where the laptop came from and simply didn’t, probably because I was too excited to play with it.

    The laptop sent to me was sent as a review machine. I do not intend to keep it. I will review it and either send it back or give it away in a contest on my site.

    Despite finding myself thrown to the bottom and kickd to the ground, I find that I’ve learned a lot from this experience being a blogger and having things sent to me. Full disclosure is absolutely pivotal. You hesitate and you’ll find yourself in trouble. There is no going backwards.

  4. Thanks, Tony.

    And thanks to you too, Brandon. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re even close to being at the bottom :-) And I think the fact that you owned up to getting the laptop, even if that admission didn’t come as quickly as some might like, says a lot for your credibility all by itself.

  5. Glad to see you chime in on this. I’ve been waiting a couple days for a real journalist to say something. I thought Joel Spolsky did a great job, though.

    Yours are very sensible comments, as always, but I’m in the admittedly small camp that says it’s never OK to take expensive gifts from companies you write about, even if you disclose that you did. It always undermines your credibility to some extent. Sure, take the gift if the company is stupid enough to send you one, but then know that you can never write with any real authority about the company again.

    Unfortunately, blogging seems to have become a victim of its own success. Originally, the authenticity of the medium gave it influence, which then attracted the influence peddlers and Big PR, who in turn corrupted bloggers with money and gifts. Ultimately, this will cause blogging to lose it’s authenticity and therefore its influence.

    Sadly, I believe you’re right, too, that is soap opera is far from over. The only people I see smiling about this are all the corporations I deal with which have repeatedly told me that blogs are irrelevant and aren’t worth their time because they lack credibility and influence.

  6. I can appreciate the purity of your position, Dominic, and I think most traditional media organizations would agree that it is never OK to receive a gift, regardless of whether you disclose it (although even that is a grey area — is lunch a gift?).

    But Ed and others have made the point that bloggers often find it difficult to make a living, and so the gift of an occasional laptop or hosting services might come in handy. If that is disclosed, then everyone gets to decide for themselves whether they think the blogger has been compromised or not.

  7. DisclosurePolicy.org > Is Mea Culpa the Default DP…

    Amit over at Digital Inspiration had a nice wrap-up post on the elite bloggers who took Microsoft Ferrari Laptops pre-loaded with Vista. Disclosure of the $2000 blogola (er, review machine) wasn’t required: Some disclosed, some didn’t. Some think it…

  8. We also have received a fully loaded Media Center PC from Microsoft as part of this campaign. People need to stop complaining – in reality, it really seems that those complaining are those who weren’t chosen. It is COMMON PRACTICE from companies to get their products into the hands of those who review said products, prior to a launch. How else are you supposed to review them before they are available to the general public? This isn’t just for the tech industry – Ebert and Roeper see movies – for free – before they are available to the public. Any problem there? Probably not.

    Plus this is a part of something bigger that Microsoft is doing – the Vanishing Point game, where Loki is the one “planning” these giveaways.

    We will give the computer away when we are done reviewing it – and I think that anyone who lumps all bloggers together and says that they won’t ever be able to write an unbiased review is seriously overgeneralizing things.

  9. I wouldn’t say I’m puritanical. I did qualify my position as being based on “expensive” gifts. Obviously, that’s a relative term, but I think you have to try to see it from your reader’s perspective. Do they live in worlds where people send them $2300 laptops on an ordinary day, or will they view a free lunch as unethical?

    People don’t have the same opinions on these things. The trick, I suppose, is for bloggers and journalists to figure out what is reasonable.

    Free laptops, most people (including Microsoft now) agree, is over the top. The bloggers who got the laptops and see nothing wrong with keeping them seem to me to hold the minority view.

  10. Thanks for that comment, Andru — I wasn’t aware of the Vanishing Point connection.

    And Dominic, I would agree that free $2,000 laptops would probably strike most people as over the top. And just to clarify, I meant that your position was “pure” in a good way, not “puritanical.” :-)

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