18 Comments

Summary:

Facebook puts your profile picture in advertisements. Google is about to do the same and other sites like Twitter will likely follow one day. How exactly is this legal? Do we have any control over our image anymore?

woman looking at ads
photo: ThinkStock

Social advertising — using a person’s profile to market to others in their social networks — is catching on with more companies, but raises the question of how much legal control people have over their own image.

Google, for instance is going to plunk your photo into ads: when your friends and contacts do a Google search — or explore Google Play and YouTube — they could see your smiling face endorsing a product or service. The plan has touched off a protest and some grumbling from a US Senator, but should go forward in November. When it does, Google will have its own version of the “Sponsored Stories” that Facebook has shown us for years.

But what if you don’t want to be in an ad: can the companies use your picture anyways? The short answer is yes. Here’s a quick Q&A on what Facebook and Google are up to and how they make it legal.

So how I do appear in product endorsements in the first place?

In the case of Facebook, when you “Like” a company or product, the social network takes that as an endorsement and offers it for sale. As for Google, that’s why the company keeps prodding you to sign up for a “profile” on Google+ — once you do, it will (soon) turn any of your reviews or likes into endorsements.

Can any company just take my picture and use it to endorse stuff?

No. Under American state privacy laws, there is a “right of publicity” that allows you to control public displays of your image. This applies to celebrities and famous athletes who want to protect their endorsement power, but it also extends to everyday people. Companies can’t put your face on a billboard — or in an internet ad — to sell things unless you give them permission.

So can I sue Facebook and Google if they put me in an ad?

The key word here is “permission.” You gave those companies permission when you signed up and agreed to their terms of service.

But this wasn’t part of the deal when I signed up!

The terms of service for Facebook, Google and other internet companies include a clause that give them the right to modify their terms from time to time. When you receive an “update,” that’s what is happening — the companies are letting you know the rules have changed and, if you don’t like it, you can quit.

It’s true that Facebook had to pay $20 million over Sponsored Stories — but that’s because they went ahead without updating their terms first.

But it’s not practical for me to just quit Google or Facebook — is there any other way to avoid appearing in the ads?

Google provides an out-opt mechanism (though it doesn’t apply to Google Play). You can’t opt out of the Facebook system.

The best option for now is to be judicious about what you “like” or “review” since these actions will likely be shown to your contacts on Google or Facebook. (Twitter may be next).

So I should just learn to live with being a product spokesperson?

Pretty much — that’s the price of admission to sites like Google and Facebook these days. The companies would argue that it’s a pretty good deal since their services are otherwise free and, in any case, you receive better, more relevant advertising. And they’re unlikely to give up “social ads” anytime soon since, as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has disclosed in court documents, such ads are three times more likely to lead to a purchase.

You might counter that the companies could charge a subscription fee and then reduce the price in exchange for accepting ads — but that’s a question for another day.

  1. The question is: If you opt out of the Facebook or Google system where to go ?
    They control the internet so, willingly or not, we have to accept their terms. And they know that.

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    1. Do you really HAVE to be on facebook or google? I have no problem communicating with friends without either company. I use some of google’s services without an account. youtube and search for example. Like Nancy Reagan used to say “just say no”

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  2. spotmagicsolis Tuesday, October 15, 2013

    Where to go is right but those entities do NOT control the Internet. It does however make it simple to compete with them because there is only a couple of large players.Unfortunately it will take a different money-making architecture not relying on spying but with the consent of participants to take these guys down..

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  3. You do have control over your image. The key is to do all your social networking on sites that don’t violate your privacy. For example, I have been using Ravetree because they don’t have ads and they don’t violate my privacy. I’m sure there are other social networks out there that also respect your privacy, but they are the best one I have found so far.

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  4. That’s the issue, we think we’re customers but we’re just the commodity that they package and sell to other interests with no benefit to us. It needs to change. It is our data, and we should be in control of it, we should be getting a piece of the action. That’s why I started this petition, zuckyoupayme. You should check it out, http://bit.ly/16l8MNp

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    1. “with no benefit to us” Seriously? You don’t think having free email, search, social networking, instant messaging is not benefiting most people? You’re free to not use these services but I think being advertised to as payment is a very good deal for me.

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  5. Bruce R. Miller Tuesday, October 15, 2013

    If you write a review for a product, or simply +1 a product, then your friends (only those in your circles) will see the review when they look at ads for the product. That’s all that is going on here. Google will not use your image or name to endorse products to strangers.

    If you opt out, then Google will not even do that. People in your circles will not have your product reviews pointed out to them. You can still use Google even if you opt out of this one small facet of the service.

    In fact, you can use Google Search without identifying yourself in any way. Just log out of your Google account, or bring up Google Search in an Incognito window.

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    1. Valentine North Wednesday, October 16, 2013

      There are a lot of people that like to keep their private lives private. They want to shop in adult stores or buy nice lingerie or cheat on their diet or whatever.
      What will those people do? Every move they do will have to be kept hidden. Right now, there are a lot of people screaming murder and because of that, opting out is somewhat easy, but what will happen a few years from now?
      Have you tried removing your account from one of those networks? Let me tell you, it’s impossible, the data is left there, and will stay that way, because there are too few who care.
      As for legality? Ha! That’s bullshit, let me repeat, BULLSHIT! It might be legal in USA, but it’s not legal everywhere else. Each country has it’s own laws and their interpretation varies greatly.

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  6. Twitter may be next?

    I can go into your twitter account and see what public accounts you are following and what tweets you have favorited today.

    For example, the three most recent favorites of @jeffjohnroberts:

    Jordan Novet ‏@gigajordan 9 h

    This is awesome. A web page that lasts forever: the plan to stop “link rot” in law and science http://gigaom.com/2013/10/14/a-web-page-that-lasts-forever-the-plan-to-stop-link-rot-in-law-and-science/ … via @jeffjohnroberts

    Andrew Beaujon ‏@abeaujon 11 h

    The New York Times had a perfect game: http://nyti.ms/16K0gYH

    Andrew Stockment ‏@AndrewStockment 11 h

    Libraries preserve vanishing sources online, but do saved pages infringe #copyrights? http://gigaom.com/2013/10/14/a-web-page-that-lasts-forever-the-plan-to-stop-link-rot-in-law-and-science/ … via @jeffjohnroberts #IPlaw

    James Haight ‏@James_Haight 14 Oct

    Enjoyed the article @jeffjohnroberts – A poignant piece about the NSA, #burner phones & security http://bit.ly/BuRnEr

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  7. New profile pic, big steaming turd.

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    1. What a wonderful idea. I envision an entire network of ads showing gore, porn, and feces. LOL

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  8. I think this is all just a politician trying to grab headlines. Your face will only be shown to your friends, and if you don’t want it to show, don’t like or + any products. You don’t have to stop using these networks, just don’t endorse products and your face won’t show up next to the search results.

    Although Google and Facebook and Twitter for that matter are free services, they still need to make money. Advertising is the easiest option, and the better the advertising (or endorsement) the more money they make.

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  9. All laws are archaic. You don’t own your image/content, because no search/seizure or privacy laws cover agreements of 3rd parties. People thump on the Constitution and our legal system like it proves the merits of democracy, but not if it means you are moored to the obsolete 20th century as the storms of the 21st rip your systems apart. It is wildly absurd to be protective of such laws that are so wildly obsolete. But go on keep playing with your smartphone, because everything will be fine.

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  10. It might be inevitable but these guys are not the only solution. There is actually a new kid on the block. Some people confuse it for eing just a celphone company, like they confused Amazon, thinking they were only selling books. But It was really about being an online distribution center!

    They say they are a Social Commerce Network. And yeah they also will use our info, but not to make money off of you like those other guys do, but to share the riches. They say their mission is to actully put money into your pocket. Its like Costco, Facebook and T-Mobile all in one! They have paid me some good cash already. they offer an unlimited plans for $49/mo. and Cash-Back from 1-15% on afiliate store deals.

    Soon members will get paid for sharing and posting things they like on the platform from afiliate stores, Oh… and when your friends post you both get great saving and earn cash back rewards (if anything is consumed). Unlike these other guys which will only use our info to get more rich themselves! Watch this video http://bit.ly/HciCad.

    I hope this helps.

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