Google said today that it plans to start a program similar to Facebook's controversial sponsored stories ads. Specifically, the search company will now show Google+ users' names, photos, reviews, +1s, stars and the like in ads.
Unlike Facebook, Google is making it relatively easy for people to opt out of its newest advertising initiative. Also unlike Facebook, Google also won't turn users under 18 into endorsers. But the new feature probably still won't be popular with people who would rather not be drafted into word-of-mouth campaigns.
Google is unveiling this program around six weeks after Facebook settled a class-action lawsuit about its sponsored stories ads. That case centered on allegations that the company was violating a California law that prohibits companies from using people's names or photos in endorsements without their written consent. California's law also bans companies from using minors' names or photos in ads without their parents' consent.
Facebook agreed to pay a total of $20 million, and to make some minor changes to its program. That deal drew opposition from some advocacy groups, but their concerns were brushed aside by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg, who approved the settlement at the end of August. Seeborg noted in his decision that it's not clear whether Facebook's sponsored stories violate California's law.
Google obviously hopes its decision to let people opt out of the program -- combined with uncertainties about California's endorsements law -- will protect the company from liability in a similar lawsuit. But even if consumers don't sue, watchdogs can cause trouble for the company.
Here's an idea for some lawmaker out there looking to get involved in this very sticky area. How about an annual opt-in, opt-out list sent to anyone included in those endorsements, listing every currently used endorsement, by every online entity using them? The person could then go down the list, either allowing continued use, or forbidding it. Any company not participating in the list would have to stop using endorsements.