Google is going to use the images, likenesses, comments and other user-created data of its users in ads on its display network. The forthcoming Google display ads will be called “Shared Endorsements.” They’re not yet live, and they won’t apply to users under 18. There will be an opt-out.
NOTE: See our follow-up story, FAQ: All About Google’s New “Shared Endorsement” Ads
According to a report in the New York Times:
On Friday, Google announced an update to its terms of service that allows the company to include adult users’ names, photos and comments in ads shown across the Web, based on ratings, reviews and posts they have made on Google Plus and other Google services like YouTube.
When the new ad policy goes live Nov. 11, Google will be able to show what the company calls shared endorsements on Google sites and across the Web, on the more than two million sites in Google’s display advertising network, which are viewed by an estimated one billion people.
If a user follows a bakery on Google Plus or gives an album four stars on the Google Play music service, for instance, that person’s name, photo and endorsement could show up in ads for that bakery or album.
However Google explains that users will have control over Shared Endorsements. The company says the following in its updated terms and conditions:
When it comes to shared endorsements in ads, you can control the use of your Profile name and photo via the Shared Endorsements setting. If you turn the setting to “off,” your Profile name and photo will not show up on that ad for your favorite bakery or any other ads. This setting only applies to use in ads, and doesn’t change whether your Profile name or photo may be used in other places such as Google Play.
If you previously told Google that you did not want your +1’s to appear in ads, then of course we’ll continue to respect that choice as a part of this updated setting. For users under 18, their actions won’t appear in shared endorsements in ads and certain other contexts.
Not long ago Facebook paid $20 million to settle a class action lawsuit over its “Sponsored Stories” ads. Those are ads that show friends’ endorsements/Likes of companies or products. The litigation claimed that Facebook had misappropriated users’ likenesses and content without consent.
Google is taking pains to learn from the Facebook episode and trying to be more explicit about what it’s doing in advance with Shared Endorsements. Nonetheless the company is courting major controversy, negative publicity and another FTC investigation potentially (when the FTC reopens that is).
At the center of this is the question of opt-in vs. opt-out. Like virtually all ad networks, Google is allowing users to opt-out rather than seeking their consent ahead of time. That’s because very few users would decide to opt-in to these types of advertising programs.
Despite Google’s statements in its terms, as a practical matter it’s not going to be clear to most people how to opt-out. Indeed, most “ordinary people” won’t really even understand the nature of Shared Endorsements or their implications. So any coming regulatory discussion or inquiry will take a look at how transparent Google is being and how prominent the disclosures are and need to be.
(The rule should be that any major change that implicates user privacy should be disclosed for a minimum of week on Google’s homepage and in a visible font size and placement. And Google should link directly to the page or area where users can change or adjust relevant settings.)
Google must have determined that the potential lift that these ads would deliver (based on Facebook’s performance data) justifies the potential controversy they’ll generate. It also must have determined that it can avoid Facebook’s mistakes. But that will be unlikely to prevent a lawsuit or an FTC inquiry.
Postscript: See our follow-up story, FAQ: All About Google’s New “Shared Endorsement” Ads
Postscript II: The New York Times story suggested “Shared Endorsements” was a new ad unit. As the FAQ article above makes clear this is not a new ad unit but an expansion of the content types that can appear in search and display ads.
Google has in fact now displayed the fact of the new terms change on its home page: