Facebook Places, the location-sharing service launched in the US last month, is now available in the UK.
Some UK users of the Facebook iPhone application found they could check-in using the then-unreleased Places earlier this month, but the Cupertino-based company denied it had been testing services this side of the Atlantic.
The UK becomes the fourth territory where Facebook Places is available to users, it launched in Japan earlier this week after the initial announcement in the US.
A European launch is imminent, but such a move in Germany would add to growing concerns over technology and the infringement of privacy in the country. Data protection authorities in Hamburg are locked in talks with Google over its Street View mapping service, the California-based company looking to upload images of 20 cities in the country by the end of this year.
Although the service is operated on an opt-out basis unlike most of the features on Facebook Places, Google has said it will not publish images of properties where a member of the public has made such a request as it looks to placate a particularly hostile reaction in the country.
Michael Sharon, product manager for Facebook Places, said there were three goals behind its new location-sharing service: to make
it easier to share where you are, discover new places and discover new friends.
On the privacy settings in place, Sharon said: "We wanted to prepare a robust set of privacy controls. I'm really proud of what we've done with the Places privacy settings because they are unprecedented in the industry at this moment in time.
"We think Here Now is a fantastic feature. It's a great way to meet new interesting people, but we also know some people wouldn't like to use the feature – they just want to share with friends or friends of friends – so we took care to turn it on for only some people.
"Some people explicitly let us know that they just want to share with a certain group so we changed the settings from the default for them – of course they can opt back in at a later time."
Sharon confirmed that a wider European rollout would be imminent, saying: "We want users to have best experience possible in every country that we are in, so we hope to bring it to wider Europe in the near future.
"People are [sharing their location on Facebook] already, people are already saying on Facebook, 'I'm here' – this formalises it, it let's them have a structured way of sharing. This is really the beginning in terms of how we start to weave location into out everyday lives.
"We think the tagging feature is one of the most powerful and interesting. For minors [aged 13-17], we made sure to restrict visibility of tags just to friends [and friends of friends] only, no matter what the minor chooses to do. If you're a minor and go to privacy control and set it to everyone, even though it will say everyone it won't show for anyone but your friends."
Tony Dyhouse, cyber security director of the UK Digital Systems Knowledge Transfer Network, issued a use-with-care warning to users of applications like Facebook Places: "Location based services have done a lot to improve our lives but people need to treat applications like Facebook Places with care. It's important to realise what criminals can glean from where you are not, i.e. at home.
"The criminal fraternity can quite easily build up a profile that includes your address, if they then have confirmation you are not at home, it can be dangerous. My main concern here is that the default setting for the location application will be 'on' – people need to be aware of the potential privacy risks associated with this."
Earlier this week media reports linked a spree of burglaries in the US to Facebook Places, claiming the suspects had seen that homeowners were out and trying their luck. However, journalism professor and Guardian columnist Jeff Jarvis quickly pointed out:
"One or two of the suspects were Facebook friends with the respective homeowners. They basically had access to the walls and could read that the families were away on vacation. The information was only available to friends and the Facebook Places feature was NOT a part of this."
A survey of 1,184 British Foursquare users commissioned by MyVoucherCodes.co.uk showed that most (82% in this case) would ditch the check-in service once Facebook places launches in the UK. The juggernaut-like momentum of Facebook could be cause for concern for lesser-known location-sharing services like Foursquare and Gowalla, with 74% of respondents saying they'd be happier using Places as more of their friends were likely to also be using it.
Facebook's larger user base – it has more than half-a-billion active users worldwide – will also attract the attention of advertisers looking to connect the virtual and physical worlds. In the UK, Domino's Pizza has a Foursquare campaign offering incentives to users who regularly attend its physical stores.
But Facebook, still a privately-held company valued at more than $33bn, is in no hurry to risk sacrificing adoption for commercialisation. Its primary aim is to tap into the increasingly lucrative social gaming industry, betting that swathes of "late adopters" will follow the dedicated group sharing their location on a daily basis.
"I think that crossing the chasm from the early adopter segment of oversharers, over to the more reticent mainstream, is not something that will happen right away," says Ray Valdes, a senior analyst at research firm Gartner. "The mainstream will absorb geotagging habits only by osmosis over time."
According to a recent study by communications regulator Ofcom, 45% of web browsing time on UK mobiles is spent on Facebook.
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