Facebook yanks location-tracking feature
Furore over e-mail addresses a double whammy for public relations
TechLife | 27 Jun 2012 :
Facebook has quickly pulled a feature it launched Sunday that allowed mobile users of the social network to find fellow members who may be nearby.
Attempts to reach the webpage for the service displayed a blank page and the tab for the service on iPhones is returning an error message.
It's been a torrid 24 hours for Facebook as it once again learns the hard way that annoying its users is terrible PR. Both Apple and Google were heavily criticised over the use of GPS data and Wi-Fi and the mashup app Girls Around Me was downright creepy and had to be pulled as soon as it came to prominence.
Facebook's main asset is its user base but its inability to turn those numbers into profit remains their principle concern. Going off on solo runs over location data and an e-mail service no one uses is hardly a way to maintain its reputation.
Facebook has issued a terse statement on the subject, saying, "We are constantly testing new features but have nothing more to share at this time."
As soon as the feature was first reported by TechCrunch, questions were raised about how it may violate a member's privacy. As has become standard operating procedure with Facebook, the feature was turned on by default. If left open, anyone within the proximity of another member could identify them, which could broaden the horizons of stalkers.
In addition to privacy concerns, Facebook was being accused by one of its developers of stealing the idea.
"I was amazed Sunday to read that Facebook is blatantly stealing our idea with what they are calling find friends nearby," Friendthem's chief executive, Charles Sankowich told AllFacebook.
Facebook engineer Ryan Patterson told TechCrunch he was inspired to create the feature at a 'hackathon'. But Sankowich had an alternative origin for how Facebook got the idea for the feature: "[W]e believe they simply stole trademarked materials of Friendthem.com."
While the nearby friends feature has been taken offline for now, it could re-emerge in the future after Facebook irons out the privacy and legal kinks in the offering. It may even turn out to be more useful than creepy.
In other bad news for the social network, users expressed outrage over what they saw as a unilateral move by the company to replace the display e-mail addresses of all users with a Facebook.com e-mail address.
"Who in the hell do you think you are to change my email address without my permission?" Facebook user Michael McFatridge said in a Facebook community forum. "That is a clear violation of my privacy and not what I intended when I entered my contact information."
McFatridge added that he has since changed the email addresses used for his account back to the original. "[I] would expect someone to explain to everyone why you did this without permission."
Lisa Smith, another Facebook user on the same forum, also chided the company for treating users like "errant preschoolers."
"I want to be able to decide how people contact me," Smith wrote. "I have enough email addresses and I don't need Facebook telling me I need another one."
Others posted messages expressing nearly identical sentiments and seeking information on how to revert back to their original email addresses.
The brouhaha started over the weekend when Facebook quietly changed the email address displayed on a user's Timeline page to a Facebook.com email address.
A Facebook spokeswoman said the e-mail change was not unannounced and pointed to a four-sentence press release issued by Facebook in April in which the company announced its plans to update e-mail addresses to make them consistent across its site.
To change the email address, a user should click on the "About" link on their main Timeline page, then click on the Edit button next to the "Contact Info" box. Although users can change which email address is shown on their Timelines, the facebook email address cannot be deleted, only hidden.
IDG News Service