In the Wild West world of online advertising, Google is hoping to add a new weapon to its already formidable arsenal: your name and face.
The internet behemoth is planning to deploy names and photos of users of its Google Plus social network and reviews they've made there to pitch products to their online friends and tout the quaint little neighbourhood restaurant.
Google is offering users a way to opt out of these new "shared endorsements."
But the plan that is expected to launch next month has already sparked a backlash, and has refocused attention on just how much control those going online have over their personal data.
"People have a reasonable expectation that when we click ‘Like’ on a product, or we click ‘Follow’ for a brand, or we check in on Foursquare that …we understand how that information is being used," says Sidneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
"To flip the script and then say we’re going to use this information … in a different way is very confusing and makes consumers really uncomfortable and irate."
Under the new terms of service that kick in on Nov. 11, the name and photo a user employs in Google Plus could be included in ads that incorporate that user's endorsement of a new Thai restaurant down the street, a new deli around the corner or the latest song that user bought through the Google Play store.
Those product or service reviews, which a user has already posted somewhere on his or her Google network, could show up in ads seen by the user’s friends and connections, and the broader public, when they do a Google search.
"We want to give you — and your friends and connections — the most useful information. Recommendations from people you know can really help," the company said in an explanation of the changes.
In reply, some Google Plus users have already shown their distaste for the plan by swapping out their personal photos in favour of one of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
In adopting "shared endorsements," the company won’t be gleaning new information from its 390 million active Google Plus users per month — it’s just changing how it uses what it already has.
"Essentially people were giving this information to Google Plus all along," says Avi Goldfarb, a marketing professor in the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
"What’s changed now is now you don’t have control over when and in what situations people see that, and so that can make some people uncomfortable."
Google’s foray into broader use of names and photos is not the first such effort to create a closer, more personal link to advertising content — and ultimately to try to make more money from it.
"It’s certainly not foolproof, but the research shows that we’re more likely to trust something that we think has been recommended by an average consumer like ourselves," says Matrix. "The very best endorsement would be from somebody that we know," even if only loosely through some sort of social media connection.
In the case of sponsored endorsements, Google is following in the footsteps of Facebook and its use of "sponsored stories," a practice that ended up costing Facebook $20 million to settle a class action lawsuit and compensate users whose personal details were featured in advertisements without their permission.
"The public sentiment was very, very negative," says Matrix, "and so Google is using the same strategy and they know they're going to need to provide an easy opt-out for people."
Both Matrix and Goldfarb say Google’s opt-out option for shared endorsements is fairly transparent and clear.
With its one box to click at the bottom of the settings page, the opt-out function "seems much more user-friendly than some of the other terms of service that we get with apps that we download," says Matrix.
But users have to take action themselves if they wish to ensure their faces don’t end up fronting promotions they might not have intended for a broader audience.
And that default position, suggests Goldfarb, is what is particularly controversial about Google’s latest move, the fact that "if you don’t do anything, this can happen."
For people who care deeply about their privacy and are always on the lookout for ways it might be compromised, the opt-out function could easily look after their concerns.
"The people who care most passionately about their own privacy are, at some level, not at risk,” says Goldfarb. "It is a very straightforward process to change."
And for some people, "shared endorsements" might be welcome.
'It’s people in the middle, people who might not care strongly one way or the other, that are going to be affected.' - Avi Goldfarb
"The people who appreciate targeted and effective advertisements, to the extent there are such people, benefit by better targeted or … more noticeable and relevant messages," says Goldfarb.
"It’s people in the middle, people who might not care strongly one way or the other, that are going to be affected," he says.
While the opt-out option may offer those concerned about privacy a comfortable way out of Google’s latest plan, Matrix cautions against anyone ever thinking that privacy settings offer full online protection.
Don't count on privacy settings
"Assuming that we’ve got our privacy settings set, and so then we’re safe, is probably very ill-advised,” she says.
"Google’s in the courts right now and they were arguing that people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our email. So I think that we can’t rely on the privacy settings."
What, then, could a person concerned about privacy rely on? Matrix offers another cautionary answer.
"I think that when you’re typing anything online, you can rely on the fact that it may be made public.
"When you post an image online, you can rely on the chance that it may become public and in places that … you just would never expect."
Google’s proposed use of shared endorsements may have sparked controversy, but there’s no sense it will be the last time an internet company seeks to find new ways to use personal information and images.
"There are lots of amazing opportunities for companies to use data to better serve customers, and as we get more and more data we’re going to see more and more companies take advantage of these opportunities to better serve their customers," says Goldfarb.
But with that comes a trade-off between giving people the services they want and having them remain comfortable offering up the data.
"There’s this fine balance at the company level and at the regulatory level, the government level, in terms of what is the right level of privacy protection and that’s an ongoing debate," says Goldfarb.
"There’s lots of variation across countries and we’re all still figuring it out."
With files from The Associated Press