Thursday, August 19, 2010

Facebook launches geolocation in US

Facebook has launched its geolocation service, Facebook Places, the latest company to enter into the popular social networking application spawned by Google and Foursquare.

There are more than half a dozen geolocation based services in use around the world. But, just as with Instant Message services, users are stifled by what their friends use. The use of such services is to alert a user's friends to their current location, whether that be a bar, restaurant or theatre. However, if other users are using a rival service, there is the issue of how to efficiently connect with people. There are also issues of privacy. 

Emergence of geolocation

When Google Latitude launched in 2009 there was a slow uptake. Concerns about privacy, and perhaps a lack of publicity, resulted in a low user base. But other geolocation services have become increasingly popular. Foursquare is probably the best known and has swiftly gained a large user base. Foursquare users "check-in" at venues using a mobile website, text messaging or a device-specific application. They are then awarded points and sometimes "badges." The service was created by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai. Ironically Crowley had previously founded the similar project Dodgeball, which Google bought in 2005 and shut down in 2009 turning it into Latitude. As of March 2010, Foursquare had 500,000 users internationally, according to Gigaom. In April that had risen to 1 million and reached 1.8 million users in June. Today Bloomberg cited that their Foursquare's user base had grown to 2.5 million.

Other geolocation services have failed to gain such popularity. Hotlist, Fire Eagle, a Yahoo! owned service, and Gowalla have far fewer users. Gowalla for example had only 150,000 active users as of March 2010.

Privacy issues

Foursquare has risen in popularity partly due to its relative anonymity. Using Google Latitude would publish the user's real name or registered Google account name to the web. However, just as Twitter allows pseudonyms, so to does Foursquare. Mr Bloggy can "Check in" on Foursquare and no real names are displayed. If Mr Bloggy has a Twitter account that too can be linked to Foursquare, but will display the name registered with Twitter. Mr Bloggy may of course have a Facebook account under his real name, say John Smith, and by linking Foursquare to Facebook a "Check in" would show as a Mr Bloggy's real name on Facebook. So by checking into the National Gallery in London, Foursquare and Twitter would post "Mr Bloggy - I'm at the National Gallery, London" while Facebook would post "Mr Bloggy just checked in @ the National Gallery, London" on John Smith's Facebook Wall.

Facebook's new application, which is currently only available in the US, will allow users to "check in" when they arrive at a location, just as in rival service Foursquare, and see whether any of their friends are nearby.

When a Facebook user checks in to a location, an update will automatically be published to their friends' News Feeds. They can also "tag" friends who are in the same location, either by way of a photo or a status update. Facebook has also partnered with other geolocation companies, including Gowalla, Foursquare, InCrowd and Yelp, to integrate their services in to Facebook Places.

Facebook has stressed that only a user's friends will be able to see where they have checked in or been tagged, unless the user explicitly decides to share this information with everyone.

But unlike Foursquare, a user's real name would be broadcast to the world. So if our Mr Bloggy "checked in" on Facebook's geolocation service and connected that to other services Mr Bloggy would reveal his real name of John Smith

And some are already crying foul, accusing Facebook of failing, once again, to protect users' privacy. One blog post titled, "Facebook Places: Check This Out, Before You Check In," the writer from ACLU in northern California criticises the perceived lack of user control, complaining that "in the world of Facebook Places, "no" is unfortunately not an option."

Techcrunch is more forgiving, but warns users to exercise some caution. The concern for some is that Facebook has already raised issues over trust and privacy before after making posts public by default until government warnings, threats and public anger forced them to back down. 

Online risks

It comes down to the age old adage 'Caveat emptor'. Social networking can be rewarding. It can connect friends and family around the world and bring people together. Twitter has revolutionised the spread of information and news. Facebook, with over 500 million users, has reconnected friends and left other such sites like Friends Reunited, with its 19 million users, behind. Blogger, Wordpress, Typepad, Flickr, Picasa Web, YouTube, Panoramia and other sites have changed the face of the web. But users of the Internet must be careful with what they share, and who they share it with.

Even Google's CEO Eric Schmidt has suggested young people may need to change their names in the future as they try to escape their online past. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Schmidt says, "I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time." 

"I mean we really have to think about these things as a society. I'm not even talking about the really terrible stuff, terrorism and access to evil things," Schmidt said.

"Mr Schmidt is completely right about how much information we are giving away online," says Big Brother Watch's Dylan Sharpe. "Right now there are millions of young kids and teenagers who, when they apply for jobs in 10 years' time, will find that there is so much embarrassing stuff about them online that they cannot take it down."

It is not the first time Schmidt has warned about online caution. During an interview last year, he said, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Data trails

Some might call Schmidt's comments somewhat contradictory considering the vast amount of data collected on individuals and organisations. While browsing data is stored and collected by Google it remains anonymous and data in GMail and Google Docs is private unless shared by the user, and can only be seized by authorities with appropriate court orders. The launch of Google Buzz and accidental collection of SSID WiFi information have embarrassed the search giant. But it could be argued that the public are just as much at fault. Users who signed up to Google Buzz without reading the terms and conditions, and checking how much data was published are just as much to blame. By leaving wireless routers unsecured, one can hardly complain that Google or anyone else gathered data. If Google Street View cameras, or indeed CCTV cameras, capture inappropriate behaviour by members of the public, whose fault it it? The issue over privacy as regards cameras is a particular point given there are few such privacy laws across much of the free world. 

But there are real and unseen dangers about posting too much about yourself. Potential employers have been known to scour the Internet to see whether potential candidates have an unfortunate past. Inappropriate posts or pictures on Facebook or MySpace may scupper any chance of that dream job. For others it may be jilted boyfriends and girlfriend who pose a threat, trawling the Internet for information and stalking ex-partners in the virtual world. Criminals have also been known to collect information to build up enough data to initiate identity theft.

For some the threat is enough to stop some from even joining this virtual world altogether. Robert Cailliau, the co-creator of the World Wide Web, has virtually opted out from the place he helped foist upon the world. "I'm not on Twitter, nor Facebook, LinkedIn or any of these systems. They suck in your soul and they will not let you go," he has been quoted as saying. Nonetheless a quick search will soon pull up a photograph, biography and other details about Cailliau.

The swift growth of social networking shows that few people are greatly concerned about the potential risks. But maybe the true threat has yet to be revealed. [Facebook places: BBC / Sky / CNN / Daily Telegraph / Guardian // Eric Schmidt warning: BBC / Daily Mail / CNET / ZDNet]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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