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Facebook Sparks Debate on Right to Use Teens in Ads

Teens love Facebook, but the feeling may not be entirely mutual. Proposed changes to the social network's terms of service mean that advertisers could take advantage of teens' Facebook information just because the teens are Facebook members.

Advocacy groups oppose Facebook's latest initiative, which they believe compromises teens' rights. If the changes go through, teens could find their likenesses used for any ad that Facebook's partners find fitting.

"Things like your name, profile picture and content may be used in connection with ads or commercial content," Facebook's proposal states. "You are granting Facebook permission for this use when you use our services."

MORE: Dear 12-Year-Olds: Skip Facebook

To be clear, Facebook already engages in this kind of behavior with teens and adults alike. The Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C. digital-rights group, says the time for action is now because Facebook is about to codify this practice in its "Rights and Responsibilities" section.

Organizations including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Public Health Institute and the Media Literacy Project have joined the CDD in its endeavor.

The CDD maintains that asking adults to read the Terms of Service and abide by them is problematic, but generally acceptable. Requiring the same from teens, it argues, is both impractical and could expose them to unforeseen consequences.

"By giving itself permission to use the name, profile picture and other content of teens as it sees fit for commercial purposes, Facebook will bring to bear the full weight of a very powerful marketing apparatus to teen social networks," reads the CDD's open letter to Facebook.

Facebook has a fairly cozy relationship with advertisers. In fact, because Facebook is free and supported by ads, one could make a reasonable argument that Facebook's members are part of the capital that Facebook trades with marketers in order to turn a profit.

If you sign up for Facebook, you agree to its Terms of Service. As the Terms of Service change, you're expected to stay abreast of them and terminate your account if Facebook does something with which you disagree.

For example, you grant Facebook the right to let advertisers sift through your personal details and use whatever the advertisers like in ads.

This means that if you're a muscular guy or gal, a gym could waltz in, grab your profile photo and claim that you got your hot bod by working out there. If you list "Star Wars" as one of your favorite movies, a sci-fi publisher could gather that as part of an aggregate study.

Advertisers could even grab your name to trick your friends into thinking that you've used the advertisers' services.

Earlier this month, an online dating service advertising on Facebook got in hot water by using the profile picture of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who killed herself in April after two years of alleged cyberbullying related to a sexual incident.

Facebook's proposal would require that each teen and at least one parent or guardian agree to the stipulation, but there is no way to enforce this. Furthermore, very few adults read terms of service agreements; it's not reasonable to expect teens to do so with any greater regularity, or for them to wait dutifully for their parents to approve their requests before clicking "confirm."

The CDD is not the only entity taking interest in teens' Facebook habits and privacy rights. The California Legislature recently passed a bill that requires websites to let teens remove whatever content they wish from social-networking sites, and provide detailed instructions on how to do so. (Facebook already allows all users to delete content.) Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill Monday (Sept. 23), and it will become law in January 2015.

Teens are resilient creatures, and giving them online rights and responsibilities similar to those of adults makes sense in a lot of ways. That said, keeping advertisers out of teens' hair as much as possible protects both the teens from invasion of privacy and advertisers from possible legal infractions.

Facebook issued a response to the CDD's letter and explained that it will not implement the proposed changes until it responds to the group's concerns adequately. Until then, both teens and adults should keep an eye out for their likenesses springing up in unexpected spots.

Follow Marshall Honorof @marshallhonorof. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.