Friday, August 20, 2010


 Facebook Inc. unveiled a new way for users to share their physical locations online, extending the social-networking giant's reach into the real world even as it opens itself to new potential concerns about privacy.

While Facebook stopped short of announcing how it would make money off its location services, the move paves the way for the company to become a major player in the growing business to supply local information and advertising, rivaling efforts by Google Inc. and others.

The new service, called Places, allows Facebook users to tap the location-sensing capabilities of their mobile phones to "check in" to a business or address and then instantly share it with their Facebook connections. The optional service will also allow users to find other people who have also recently logged their presence physically nearby.

Places will "help people stay connected everywhere they go, not just at their computer," said Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg at an event at the company's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters.

While location-based mobile-app companies such as Foursquare Labs Inc. have drawn attention from early adopters and investors, Facebook's entry into the market could help make the idea of sharing one's location with friends and businesses become mainstream. The company already has 150 million users of its service on mobile phones, although the Places service will initially only be available on an app for Apple Inc.'s iPhone and through an enhanced mobile website.

Still, adding location information to the data that Facebook collects and mines about its 500 million users could open the company to new criticism from privacy advocates and regulators. Facebook executives said they built in privacy controls to protect sensitive location information, such as limiting the default visibility of check-ins to friends only.

But Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil-liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said it left out some other important privacy safeguards. "Facebook is rolling out 'here now,' privacy later," she said, noting that the company makes it easy to let strangers know your current location but gives limited ability to control exactly who knows that you are at a place. If a user's "here now" feature is turned on, he or she is visible to any user in that place.

"It's nearly impossible to launch any new social feature without some level of privacy concern, and it remains to be seen whether users will like or dislike the fact that they can be checked in by their friends," said Augie Ray, a social-networking analyst with Forrester Research. Facebook said it intended that service as an advantage, since not all of its users have one of the smartphones that are required to use the service. Users can also turn off the ability for their friends to check them in—but it is permitted by default.

In May, Facebook changed its privacy controls following a torrent of criticism. The Federal Trade Commission has said it is continuing to look into social networks and plans to issue new guidelines later this year for how they handle privacy. In late July, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing about online privacy that included testimony from Facebook, Google and other technology companies.

Mr. Zuckerberg played down the immediate implications of the new service for Facebook's core revenue stream of selling advertising. "You can imagine all of these things in the future," he said, but added that the company wanted to focus first on creating a service that would be useful for the social lives of users.

Still, analysts said the location service could eventually open considerable new business opportunities for Facebook, including location-targeted advertising. Facebook could also tap business opportunities by setting up sponsorships and special deals with local businesses. Even with the initial launch, local businesses will be able to claim the Facebook page for their own location as a business page.

"There are such tremendous opportunities for marketers with Places, I think, sooner rather than later we are going to see advertisers incorporated into it," said Debra Aho Williamson, a senior analyst at eMarketer

Those sorts of business uses could eventually compete with Google, which has been building out its maps and local information and advertising business. In the mobile market, Google hopes to become a platform for mobile check-in services by offering its database of information about millions of local businesses and other places around the world.

For the existing generation of location-based Internet services, Facebook extended an olive branch by opening the location data that it collects to third parties. Appearing at Facebook's announcement, some initial partners, including Foursquare and Gowalla, said they thought Facebook would be an enabler—not a competitor—by introducing a lot of new users to the world of sharing their locations.

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