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There is no 'Free Lunch': Your Likeness and Endorsement by Google (or Facebook)

Everyone loves free stuff these days, but nothing comes without cost to someone*, directly or indirectly.

On the web, that has typically meant that to use a service, one has to put up with advertisements which interfere with the experience to a greater or lesser degree, as well as giving up some personal information, as well as being put on mailing lists, being tracked and targeted by advertisers, and so on. Most of this is straightforward, and it has become mainstream practice. It is well accepted as a means of funding web services**.

This exchange of value has suited the web pretty well, though it is not always well liked: being tracked by cookies offends some. So if being tracked by cookies is obnoxious to you, what about having your likeness and comments and web presence being used to sell stuff, without your permission? More on that in a bit.

There is a new trend afoot which I’ll summarize as “get ’em hooked on our stuff, and we’ll do whatever we want down the line. This new trend violates accepted web privacy norms: it exposes a person personally far beyond the original intent, possibly expropriates property (e.g. personal or professional images, writing of all sorts), and in general might place a person’s likeness and comments out of context to their desire or alongside products that are offensive to them (“your face here” on a tampon or hemorrhoid or drug addiction ad?).

You do have a electronic existential choice of sorts: abandon your favorite site that has gone this route, perhaps with years of effort into it.

Recently, Facebook introduced new terms to steal images uploaded to Facebook, including using your likeness. Ordinary users might shrug, but photographers using Facebook should take that *very* seriously. Of course 'steal' is unfair in a legal sense, since the license agreement change in terms makes it all quite prim and proper. A sort of ex post facto license change.

Now the New York Times reports that Google will soon execute a similar change-of-license ploy [new Google terms of service], not as ugly as the Facebook change, but with the same mindset in how customer information is to be used:

On Friday, Google announced an update to its terms of service that allows the company to include adult users’ names, photos and comments in ads shown across the Web, based on ratings, reviews and posts they have made on Google Plus and other Google services like YouTube.

When the new ad policy goes live Nov. 11, Google will be able to show what the company calls shared endorsements on Google sites and across the Web, on the more than two million sites in Google’s display advertising network, which are viewed by an estimated one billion people.

If a user follows a bakery on Google Plus or gives an album four stars on the Google Play music service, for instance, that person’s name, photo and endorsement could show up in ads for that bakery or album.

Google’s Oct 11, 2013 email notice on change to terms of service

This might not bother some people at all, and it might bother others a lot. To Google’s credit, there is an “opt out” option (Facebook does NOT offer that option), as well as some means to restrict to your “circle”. But will that last?

Consider the implications of monitoring every service you use for the rest of your life for every change of terms, constantly having to opt out or lose your privacy or data or images or whatever, for everything you posted for the last 5/10/20 years. It is not a fair or reasonable approach in my view: opt-in is the ethical choice (“Don’t be evil” anyone?).

Once an accepted barrier or convention is discarded, a psychological resistance evaporates to that “path”, and similar changes tend to accelerate: doesn’t a petty thief moves onto larger items sooner or later?

Google’s approach to privacy thus is following the logical steps. Google is scanning your email to target you with ads, so one has to wonder about a serious lapse in ethics over in Mountain View (what else are they scanning for, and for whom?), including a CEO who “declines to pass judgment” on NSA spying. Extending a moral sanction is complicity, and especially troubling for a person in a powerful position.

* I charge for my photography photography publications work, there are no ads in them, and I never sell personal information or even collect more than the bare minimum, because I have a deep respect for user privacy.

** This site uses ads for funding, but its mailing list is 100% opt-in, and this site does not collect personal information.

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