Most of Facebook's reported 50 million users might be mostly ordinary people, but the site's latest legal issue involves celebrity law.
Earlier this month, shortly after the social networking site announced its Social Ads initiative, University of Minnesota law professor William McGeveran argued in a blog post that the new program might violate a number of privacy laws.
Social Ads, which have already begun to appear on the site, are designed to boost Facebook's lukewarm revenues by targeting ads directly toward the members in question. They allow Facebook members to sign up as "fans" of an advertiser and then have their names and profile photos displayed alongside the marketer's ads on their friends' Facebook pages. Problem is, that potentially violates a New York privacy law that protects peoples' names and likenesses from being used without written permission, according to McGeveran.
"It's not just a New York law. Most states have statutes that protect this. Sometimes it's called a right of publicity, sometimes it's called commercial appropriation, sometimes it's a right to privacy," said Brian Murphy, a partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, a New York-based media and entertainment law firm. "It's essentially that area of law that protects all of us, but in particular celebrities, from having their likenesses used without their permission."
The real problem facing Facebook, however, isn't that Social Ads are illegal. Social media, including Facebook, is an uncharted territory for the American legal system, and old laws are being applied to a new concept. The New York privacy law that McGeveran cited, indeed, has its roots "more than a hundred years years ago by some bigwigs back in the late 1890s who were tired of having their private lives splashed across the equivalent of Page Six," said Murphy.
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