Google on Friday altered its Terms of Service to allow it to include users' Google+ profile names and pictures in Google products, including advertisements, reviews and other commercial offerings.
Google grants itself permission to do this by default, but allows users to opt out of appearing in ads through its new Shared Endorsements in Ads setting. The company attempts to discourage users from revoking the permission by displaying this message when the checkbox is deselected: "Are you sure? When you disable this setting, your friends will be less likely to benefit from your recommendations."
The opt-out option is limited in scope, however: Google will still employ users' names and photos in Shared Endorsements related to reviews, +1, follows and other promotional services. You were expecting something for nothing?
Google's move echoes Facebook's decision in August to revise its Proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Facebook granted itself the right to employ users' names, profile pictures, content and information, without compensation, in ads and sponsored content. Facebook, however, has not offered a way to opt out, which also isn't available to users who would prefer to be visible in Graph Search.
[ Time to reset your permissions? Read Facebook Unfriends Another Privacy Setting. ]
Facebook was forced to delay its policy changes after privacy groups and lawmakers complained that Facebook was violating its 2011 agreement with the Federal Trade Commission by failing to give users a say in the change. The agreement stipulated that Facebook had to obtain consent from users before making policy changes. Facebook's chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, told the Los Angeles Times last month that the company wasn't making changes as much as providing additional information.
It remains to be seen whether that subtle distinction will fly with regulators and whether Google will face similar blowback.
On Twitter, marketers see Google's entry into the selling of user endorsements as an affirmation of the power of word-of-mouth marketing. Outside of the world of advertising, observers are less sanguine.
New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum declared, "This is despicable and makes me hate Google."
Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman proposed opting out as a form of protest. "If enough folks opt-out of Shared Endorsements, maybe we can remind Google to innovate, not ape Facebook's bad ideas," he said in a Twitter posting.
The last time Google presented a change of this magnitude was in 2012, when the company said it planned to unify its privacy policies so it could treat its diverse portfolio of online services as a single service in matters of privacy. Though there was considerable outcry at the time, the change went through and Google emerged with even greater marketing power: a unified user data set. Expect more of the same: sound and fury, signifying nothing, followed by friend-fortified product pitches.