Is Facebook violating New York privacy laws when it permits children to press the “like” button on the site to endorse advertisements without first receiving approval from their parents? That’s the question posed by a lawsuit filed on May 3, 2011, in federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., by the father of a teenager there who is a member of the hugely popular social networking site. The case was brought as a class action on behalf of “all minors in New York whose names or likenesses were used by Facebook, Inc., for commercial purposes without the consent of the parents or guardians of said minors.” Anyone over the age of 12 can sign up for a Facebook account.
When any Facebook user, including a teenager, “likes” an advertisement, that preference appears on the Facebook page for that ad, the lawsuit says. This in turn is considered a “click” on that ad and generates revenue for Facebook, since it receives revenue from advertisers based on the number of users that “like” the advertisement. Facebook’s privacy settings don’t permit any users to prevent their names and pictures from appearing on advertising pages that they have “liked.” They can at any time withdraw their “like,” but as long as it is in effect, it will be considered a “click” and thus a “commercial use,” according to the complaint.
In order to sign up for Facebook, users, including those under age, agree to the following statement: “You can use your privacy settings to limit how your name and profile picture may be associated with commercial, sponsored or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. You give us permission to use your name and profile picture in connection with that content, subject to the limits you place.” According to the complaint, however, “at no time does Facebook seek or obtain the consent of any parent or guardian of its minor users to use or sell the name and likeness of the child for commercial use by Facebook or third-party advertisers.”
Thus, according to the complaint, Facebook is using minors’ names and likenesses for “commercial and marketing purposes” without the consent of their parents or legal guardians. This, according to the complaint, violates New York Civil Rights Law Sections 50 and 51, which provide civil and criminal penalties for using minors’ names or likenesses without such consent.
Creative lawyering, for sure. Who could have predicted that a kid expressing his fondness for a product could give rise to a class action? A Facebook spokesman has been quoted as saying, “We believe this suit is completely without merit and we will fight it vigorously.”