A California court has allowed a lawsuit against Facebook and their sponsored ads to move forwards on grounds that sponsored ads violate state laws, in addition to being fraudulent. Facebook, which is based in Palo Alto, CA, maintains that the ads are acceptable as they are.
The ads in question are called Sponsored Stories. They appear on a sidebar when a person signs in to Facebook. A Sponsored Story is a regular ad accompanied by the name and profile picture of a person from the user’s Friends list, with the statement “Joe Smith Likes this.”
The arguments from both sides center around how to classify users on Facebook. Are users celebrities, to be protected by California’s Right to Publicity Statute, or are users public figures, whose activities on Facebook will fall under the Newsworthiness Exception?
The plaintiffs are alleging that they have been economically damaged by Facebook violating the Right to Publicity statute, which requires a person’s consent in order to use their name, signature, likeness, photo or voice in an advertisement. Facebook alleges that users are public figures to their friends, and the opinions of public figures, including opinions on consumer products, are newsworthy statements.
It should be noted that the people used in Sponsored Stories have clicked to “Like” the product or service in question; Facebook is not selling user data to their advertisers. In order for my name and image to be paired with a Sponsored Story for Brand X, I had to have gone to their page and clicked “Like”.
Plaintiffs may have a difficult time proving that they are public figures enough to be economically damaged by being used in advertisements but not public figures enough to be newsworthy.
Ultimately, this lawsuit could tell us more about how we view ourselves than anything about advertising laws. Have we reached a point where we no longer have an expectation of privacy, instead we have an expectation of celebrity? Has Facebook created a society where we no longer have friends, we have an adoring public?
Whatever the outcome of this case against Facebook, one thing is clear: Facebook considers its users to be public figures to their own circle, and that seems to be a role users are willing to fill. Has privacy been replaced by compensation and/or recognition as the primary concern of the public?
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