With its new location-based Places feature, Facebook may have just lit the match that will ignite another round of privacy controversy.
On Wednesday, Facebook took the wraps off of Places, a smartphone-based service that enables users to tell their friends where they are, and to track friends. The service, which is slowly being rolled out to users, enables people to share their friends' locations.
After dealing with angry and frustrated users for months this year, Facebook is jumping back into already-tumultuous privacy waters with its new location-based service.
Any location-based service will instill some trepidation in users who see it as a stalker's best friend. Want to know where someone is? Check Places. Want to know when someone is away from home so you can break in and steal their flat-screen TV? Check Places.
Opting in vs. opting out
And while that's always an issue, forcing users to opt out of using the service rather than allowing them to opt in has some privacy advocates up in arms. Facebook has set up Places so that it is on by default, and users must make their way through the system's privacy controls in order to turn it off.
"I've watched how they've handled users' privacy over the last year and a half or so, and they continually step on their dance partners' feet every time they get a new dance partner," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst at Current Analysis.
"The fact that it's turned on by default really ticks me off as a user. Those missteps bother me and show that they really are running a little bit faster than they know how," Shimmin continued. "They keep requiring users to jump over hoops to protect themselves."
While there hasn't been widespread outrage over the new feature, Shimmin wasn't the only one who was angry about it.
Soon after Facebook announced Places, the ACLU of Northern California issued a statement saying the social network has failed to build in some important safeguards.
"In the world of Facebook Places, 'no' is unfortunately not an option," the ACLU said in the statement. "Places allows your friends to tag you when they check in somewhere, and Facebook makes it very easy to say 'yes' to allowing your friends to check in for you. But when it comes to opting out of that feature, you are only given a 'not now' option. 'No' isn't one of the easy options."
Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt fired back today, saying he's "disappointed" in the ACLU of Northern California.
"Facebook Places sets a new standard for user control and privacy protection for location information," he wrote in a statement.
"No one can be checked in to a location without their explicit permission. Many third parties have applauded our controls, indicating that people have more protections using Facebook Places than other widely used location services available today," Schnitt said.
Painful privacy settings
Shimmin, however, said Facebook didn't make the privacy settings easy enough and noted that some users are confused by the process of trying to opt out.
"I've seen manuals for programming your DVR that are simpler," he added. "Lessons learned in the past would indicate the way this should have been rolled out is with an opt-in. It should allow any users, whether smart or stupid, to say 'Yes, I want to participate' or 'No, I don't want to participate.'"
"For your average, very casual Facebook user, they're going to get very frustrated with this," Shimmin said.
Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said this actually could be a chance for Facebook to clean up its privacy image.
"I think that this will result in at least a temporary hubbub if not a full-scale brouhaha," Olds said. "However, Facebook can immunize themselves against much of this, or at least ensure it stays small, if they address people's privacy concerns and adjust the controls in a very clear and understandable manner."
"It might even help their reputation a bit if they prove that they've given a lot of thought to privacy and install fail-safe controls to ensure that no one is located who doesn't want to be located," he said.
However, Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, said that while Facebook does have a chance to clean up its reputation here, the company simply doesn't seem to be heading in that direction right now.
"I'm not yet getting the sense that they are taking this as seriously as they probably should," Enderle said. "There is a lot of opportunity for misuse with this."
He added: "The concept is a good one, but it needs a lot of maturing to work safely in today's unsafe world."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is email@example.com.