Parents resume privacy fight vs. Facebook over use of children’s images in ads

A group of parents, backed by child advocacy and privacy groups, plans to ask a federal appeals court Thursday to throw out a settlement with Facebook over its use of children’s images in advertisements.

Two years ago, the social-media giant agreed to tweak its policies and pay up to $20 million in fines and charitable contributions after it was found in a class-action lawsuit to have used members’ images — without their permission — in advertisements known as sponsored stories.

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Some plaintiffs in that lawsuit, along with some public interest groups, say that Facebook continues to expose children to harm despite the settlement and that it is still using children’s images without proper authorization. Parents can now ask the company to remove an image from sponsored stories that appear across the firm’s wide network of partner sites, but critics say Facebook should be asking for permission first.

“The settlement now says that in order to use Facebook you have to agree that Facebook can do this,” said Scott Michelman, an attorney for Public Citizen, one of a handful of public interest groups involved in the new lawsuit. “In a way, this is worse than before the settlement, because Facebook doesn’t have to change its practice and now has legal language in place to protect itself from further lawsuits.”

The action comes amid increasing concern that social-media firms are using subscriber data for marketing in what feels like a bait-and-switch approach to users who do not agree to such practices when they first sign up for the free services. In October, Google also said it would begin to put user data in banner ads displayed on thousands of its partners’ Web sites, though the company does not use images of minors.

Users sign up for Facebook and Google services because they are free and few assume their data will be used for marketing endorsements, according to public interest groups that accuse the Web giants of changing the terms of their service contracts frequently and often secretively.

“The court-approved settlement provides substantial benefits to everyone on Facebook, including teens and their parents, and goes beyond what any other company has done to provide consumers visibility into and control over their information in advertising,” said Jodi Seth, a spokeswoman for Facebook. “The same arguments on state law were raised and rejected by the court last year, and a dozen respected groups continue to support the settlement.”

Even after the 2012 settlement, Margaret Becker, a plaintiff in the suit to be filed Thursday, said her 15-year-old daughter was surprised to learn that her picture had appeared in an ad for a music group. The girl remembered “liking” the band’s fan page, but she never thought the simple press of a button would permit Facebook to turn her into a virtual spokesperson for the band in ads distributed to the teen’s network of friends. “It was really a surprise,” said Becker, who lives in Brooklyn. “At this age, she didn’t think too much of it and what it means for her privacy. She is smart and aware but is still a child.”

In their filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit of California in San Francisco, Becker and others say Facebook’s practices continue to violate laws in California, Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin that prohibit the use of a minor’s image without parental permission.

In the 2012 settlement, Facebook agreed to pay $10 million to users, amounting to a maximum of $15 per subscriber. Facebook also agreed to pay $10 million in plaintiffs’ attorney fees and in charitable contributions to groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for stronger privacy protections for consumers.

One such beneficiary, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, plans on Thursday to announce that it will reject a donation of nearly $300,000 as part of the settlement, however. The group now says it will not accept the money unless Facebook strengthens its privacy protections for children. “Its purported protections are largely illusory, and it will undermine future efforts to protect minors on Facebook,” said Susan Linn, the group’s director. “We could do a lot of good with $290,000, but we cannot benefit from a settlement that we now realize conflicts with our mission to protect children from harmful marketing.”

In approving the settlement, Judge Richard Seeborg acknowledged that the agreement fell far short of requests by consumers and public interest groups. But he said it was hard to prove users were harmed by the sponsored stories.

The settlement, “while not incorporating all features that some objectors might prefer,” he said, “has significant value and provides benefits that likely could not be obtained outside the context of a negotiated settlement.”

 
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