Privacy Law

Are Planned Facebook Ads Illegal?

Innovative new advertising planned on the Facebook social networking Web site could be illegal, depending on how far it goes in linking targeted individual advertising to what the recipient’s friends do and say online.

And the campaign certainly creates privacy issues, whether or not it creates potential causes of action, since it “will rely on information in users’ profiles and on friends’ online activity to determine what ads might appeal to users,” according to the Chicago Tribune. For example, advertisers can “fine-tune” their approach, say by “having their pitches appear only to women under 30 who attended New York University and work at Goldman Sachs,” the newspaper reports.

A discussion on the New York Times Web site speculates that the planned Facebook advertising could be illegal. It’s a criminal misdemeanor under New York law, as well as a potential cause for damages, the Times points out, if “any person whose name, portrait, picture, or voice is used within this state for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade without the written consent first obtained.”

And, at common law, individuals generally have a privacy claim against an advertiser who uses the person’s name or image without permission, says William McGeveran, a law professor at the University of Minnesota.

However, it’s not clear that Facebook intends to go that far. Instead, it appears that the company may plan to maintain a thin veil of individual privacy by allowing advertisers to target a specific user’s network cohorts, without actually identifying the user.

“Facebook promises that no information that could identify individuals will be disclosed to advertisers,” the Tribune says.

USA Today (“Marketers to capitalize on Facebook connections”).

USA Today (“Privacy? That’s old school”).

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