Google (GOOG) is tinkering with the ever-delicate balance between selling advertisements and creeping its users out. On Friday the company said it would begin including recommendations that Google+ users make in advertisements. The new policy kicks in on Nov. 11.
Here’s how it works: You use Google+ to rate some product or service. It turns out the company behind that product wants to advertise on Google. When the company purchases an ad, your friends will see a version that includes your photo along with what you said about the product.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because critics have been up in arms about a similar advertising scheme from Facebook (FB) called sponsored stories. The ads resulted in a class-action lawsuit, and the social network eventually had to pay a $20 million settlement and clarify its privacy settings. Inevitably, the clarification provoked another round of outrage.
Both Google and Facebook have been in trouble for violating users’ privacy, but nothing about the latest Google move is an inherent privacy violation. Facebook’s trouble came not from the inclusion of users in ads but from the lack of clarity about what it was doing. Google is trying to avoid that misstep. It’s very easy to opt out of the ads on Google: Just go to this page and unclick the box giving it permission to use your likeness. Google will whine a bit about it—a pop-up warns that in disabling the setting “your friends will be less likely to benefit from your recommendations”—but otherwise it seems to let you opt out.
Of course, there’s another way not to show up in advertisements: Don’t use any of the social features on Google. While having some people opt out of the ads isn’t good for Google, it would be really bad for the company if people stopped using its services. And every time something like this comes up, there’s a little wave of user threats to do just that. Google—or, more frequently, Facebook—grits its teeth and endures the criticism because the company is pretty confident users are much more likely to complain than to follow through, and one day of criticism is worth the money it can make down the road.
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