With geo-location on Facebook what will this do to privacy?

26 Aug 2010

You are in a bar in the city and decide to let some friends know so they can drop by if they’re around. In the past you would have sent a text message or made calls. But, with the advent of social networking services such as Foursquare and more lately Facebook’s Places feature, people will know exactly where you are on the map with the tap of a button.

Last week, Facebook introduced its Places feature in the US, with more countries such as Ireland to follow. This will bring it into direct competition with Foursquare, a mobile app service that allows you to ‘check in’ at locations like restaurants, which has significant appeal for advertising and B2B services.

Geo-location represents the most exciting development in the mobile internet and its importance was demonstrated by Google’s decision last week to create 200 jobs in Dublin to focus on location. Facebook, whose offices are nearby, employs over 100 people working on usability and business.

I spoke to Facebook’s policy director for Europe Richard Allan about the importance of privacy in this new world where your 200 or more ‘friends’ will not only know what you’re thinking (because you said it) but what products you buy in a shop or where you are.

Facebook inadvertently fuelled the privacy fire earlier this year when its 26 year-old billionaire CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared ‘privacy is dead’. While Zuckerberg was most likely musing on people’s tendency to share all in this brave and freakish new world, it made people analyse Facebook’s settings policy and how it should protect its users.

“Privacy is absolutely at the heart of the discussions we have,” Allan explains.

“It’s not surprising because of the scale we operate and the fact that we allow people to do things that were much more difficult before. The general context is one in which the advent of ubiquitous digital recording technology, from laptops to GPS, combined with ubiquitous networks, means there’s the potential to publish lots of information about ourselves and each other.

“We are trying to offer individuals tools that allow them to make sense of and control that publication as best they can. Before Facebook you had blogging and websites that you had to build by hand and which were only available to the high priests of technology.

“We have responded by developing sophisticated privacy controls that allow users to decide how each item is published and keep it simple. Nobody has had to address that question more than Facebook has. The problem is striking the balance between making it simple or suiting others who want more complexity.”

Facebook is working to ensure that it isn’t just a website on its own but a reflection of the entire web and it is driving to allow businesses and individuals connect their websites to its network, that strategy is called Open Graph. This means anyone who visits your site or happens to be standing in a shop and comments or ‘likes’ something, word will spread to hundreds of others.

But lives have been impacted too where Facebook has been an instrument in the hands of criminals and in the UK a ‘panic button’ application has been added for use by teenagers to report suspicious behaviour.

“I spend a lot of time working on the safety issues,” says Allan. “This reflects the sheer scale of the user base and there have been incidents where users have done bad things that happened outside of Facebook.

“We insist on a real-name culture on Facebook which is a strong protection as opposed to the general internet where people can be anonymous.

“We have engineers working non-stop to detect behaviour, there’s a red flag to make sure accounts are not being abused. We invest heavily in reporting tools. We have a lot of staff in Dublin focusing on user reports.”

Out of Facebook’s user base, 150 million users access the service on their mobile device and the onset of Places will mean businesses will also have an exciting way to market themselves.

Explains Allen: “Places will mean that not only will users who are saying they ‘like’ the Tower of London say so but they can also physically validate they are there.

“That’s the magic of social networking, you can really add to an experience, share content around a place you are visiting and ultimately create a richer social experience about a place,” he affirms.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years