When law professor William McGovern questioned the legality of Facebook ads last week, Facebook insisted its news Social Ads aren't endorsements, they're a "representation" of user activity. Semantics matter here, because New York law requires permission before people's names and images are used to endorse products. McGovern contends Facebook's ads are endorsements. He may have a point — look no further than Facebook's own sample ad from Blockbuster:
The problem for Facebook is that the company wants it both ways. When Facebook launched the new ad products, Forrester Research "Web strategist" Jeremiah Owyang began telling anybody who will listen that Social Ads will work because to a user they look like product endorsements from their friends. You don't have to wonder where Owyang got the "endorsement" idea. Facebook briefed him on the new products prior to launch.
But don't expect this doublespeak to put off Madison Avenue. Remember, this is where Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man were born. A little invasion of user privacy shouldn't be much of a moral obstacle.
As McGovern points out, however, it could well be a legal one. New York's law specifically requires written permission. In California, Facebook could face a $750 fine for each violation. Elsewhere, general laws about privacy could put Facebook in jeopardy — but Facebook users would have to prove damages to their careers as paid endorsers. With the growth of blog payola, though, that shouldn't be hard for anyone to establish. Finally, a business model for PayPerPost!