Two Los Angeles County teenagers are suing Facebook, claiming the social networking giant effectively sold their names and images to advertisers without parental permission.
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 26 in Los Angeles, challenges a Facebook feature that allows members to note that they like an advertised service or product. Facebook broadcasts those endorsements to the user’s friends.
The lawsuit also claims minors unwittingly endorse Facebook when people typing their names in a search engine are steered to a Facebook sign-up page.
The plaintiffs say Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook is violating a California law that requires parental consent for children to make commercial endorsements. The teens seek unspecified damages.
Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said the lawsuit is meritless. He noted that Facebook doesn’t allow users under 18 to let their profiles appear on public search engines.
University of Minnesota law professor Bill McGeveran, who has much experience in social media and legal issues, told Online Media Daily that “the borderline between conversation and advertising is really blurry in social networking.”
McGeveran referenced a 1971 California law that prohibits companies from using people’s names or photos in ads without their consent, or if the person is a minor, without parental consent, and pointed out that the law was enacted before the internet or social networking existed.
The class-action lawsuit is filed on behalf of all California residents who are or were under the age of 18 and members of Facebook from Aug. 26, 2007, to Aug. 26, 2010, and whose likenesses or names were used in a Facebook advertisement or landing page.
“When a teenager sees that their Facebook friends ‘like’ an ad, it piques their curiosity, making them more likely to click the ad or visit the page,” said Los Angeles plaintiff attorney John Torjesen of John C. Torjesen & Associates. “We believe it is a clear case of exploitation of children for the sake of profits.”
“The consent of the minor for this commercial use of his or her name and likeness is not obtained by Facebook,” said plaintiff attorney and co-counsel Antony Stuart of Stuart Law Firm. “Under California law, the minor’s consent cannot be obtained without the consent of the parent or guardian. Facebook makes no effort to obtain parental consent.”
Under California law, minors can’t give legal consent, and the lawsuit claims that Facebook should seek parental or guardian permission before underage members say they “like” advertised items.
The lawsuit also alleges that Facebook tells advertisers that when a user “likes” a product, the action results in more click-throughs by the user’s friends.
“The apparent endorsement of a good or service in an advertisement by one member who is recognizable to other persons will generate higher ‘click-throughs’ and greater revenues to a paying advertiser, and thereby to Facebook,” the lawsuit reads.
“Facebook encourages its members to communicate such ‘likes,’ characterizing these indications of like as something that contributes to the social nature of communication within the Facebook network. Facebook then uses this information for targeted marketing of endorsement ads to the effect that ‘[your friend] Billy Smith likes this product.’ In the forgoing example, Billy Smith is a Facebook member and a child whose name (and often likeness) is being used to endorse paid advertisements without legal consent.”
A Facebook representative said the social networking company will “fight [the lawsuit] vigorously.”