Google to put user photos, comments in online ads

October 11, 2013

Google has made a fortune selling ads. Now it’s trying to put its hundreds of millions of users to work as company pitchmen, using the profiles, pictures and recommendations of ordinary people to endorse products and services across the Web.

After the policy takes effect Nov. 11, users who review a video on YouTube or a restaurant on Zagat.com could see their name, photo and comments show up in ads on any of the 2 million Web sites that are part of the company’s display advertising network.

The controversial practice, announced Friday by Google, is part of an emerging trend on the Internet. Advertisers believe that consumers place enormous value on product endorsements that come from a friend or family member, and growing numbers of Web companies are trying to capture that social advertising in a systematic way.

But critics say tactics that further exploit the data people leave online amount to a bait-and-switch. People signed up for Google’s services because they were free and convenient. They probably never thought their words and identities would be put in front of strangers to sell a product.

Users who casually endorse a product or song on Facebook or Google “may be exposed to unwanted, and possibly misunderstood, implications,” said Eric Goldman, a professor of Internet law at Santa Clara University law school.

Google said the launch of “shared endorsements” will help consumers make better choices. “We want to give you — and your friends and connections — the most useful information. Recommendations from people you know can really help,” the company wrote in its announcement.

It added that users can opt out of the ads and that it will automatically exclude anyone under the age of 18.

The announcement follows a similar advertising feature by Facebook called “sponsored stories,” which turns a recommendation made through the social network’s “like” button into an advertising endorsement on a friend’s Facebook page. The company has said its users cannot opt out of the practice. About 1.2 billion people are on Facebook.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission said it would review whether Facebook’s push into sponsored stories violated the company’s 2011 privacy settlement with the federal government. That agreement required Facebook to give adequate notice of changes in privacy policies and to make sure users aren’t misled about how their data is being used.

Due to the government shutdown, the FTC said it could not respond to a question on whether its investigators would also examine Google’s new advertising practice.

Google said its new advertising policy would apply only to the 390 million people who have signed up for Google Plus, the company’s social network. The company can also draw on endorsements made with Google’s +1 button, which is similar to Facebook’s “like” button and appears on sites across the Web.

A user who wants to limit the reach of his or her advertising endorsements could adjust settings so that a positive review for, say, a car is shared only with a small circle of friends on Google Plus, the company said.

Some privacy experts commended the way Google is rolling out the feature by giving users a month’s notice of the changes and options to decline.

“Some people may like the fact that their reviews will be promoted and more influential. Others have a pretty easy way to opt out,” said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum.

In May 2012, Google agreed to a $22.5 million FTC fine for misrepresenting its tracking practices on the Safari browser used on Apple devices. The settlement included continued supervision of the firm’s disclosures about how it handles users’ data.

Google said it will display the latest change in its privacy policy on its main home page, through Google Plus notifications and in other prominent places.

Still, some privacy advocates remained skeptical of the search giant.

“This move by Google reflects the growing and unchecked expansion of online data collection by the industry,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Hayley Tsukayama contributed to this report.

Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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