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Shots already fired over Facebook Places privacy

Privacy groups were voicing concern about the social network's new geolocation feature before it had even rolled out in full. Will anyone listen to them this time?

The first question for many when Facebook finally unveiled its Places geolocation product on Wednesday didn't have to do with how quickly the social network's 500-million-plus users would catch on, but rather how privacy advocacy groups--who have had Facebook in their crosshairs for months now--would react to the announcement.

It appears to be progressing as expected: A handful of privacy groups are voicing concerns about how much data is collected, how many controls users need to wade through to disable features, and how much may be exposed to third parties. Facebook, in turn, says they're missing the point.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California was the first major organization to release a statement after the debut of Facebook Places, and while it praised the company for learning some lessons from past privacy snafus and defaulting location-sharing to "friends only," it voiced particular concern about the feature that allows Facebook users to check their friends in, commenting that "in the world of Facebook Places, 'no' is unfortunately not an option."

Facebook responded to the ACLU on Thursday. "We're disappointed that ACLU's Northern California office ignores (Facebook's attention to privacy sensitivity) and seems to generally misunderstand how the service works," a statement read. "Specifically, no location information is associated with a person unless he or she explicitly chooses to become part of location sharing. 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."

Facebook offered up a list of contacts from third-party groups like the Family Online Safety Institute, TrustE, and the Future of Privacy Forum for external comment, suggesting that the ACLU is alone in its opposition to Facebook Places. But, in fact, a handful of other groups have been even less forgiving.

"The recently announced Facebook service Places makes user location data routinely available to others, including Facebook business partners, regardless of whether users wish to disclose their location. There is no single opt-out to avoid location tracking; users must change several different privacy settings to restore their privacy status quo," a statement from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) read. "EPIC, joined by many consumer and privacy organizations, has two complaints pending at the Federal Trade Commission concerning Facebook's unfair and deceptive trade practices, which are frequently associated with new product announcements."

AOL-owned business news outlet DailyFinance tracked down Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, who said that the organization would be "will be raising Facebook's new location feature with top FTC officials this week," citing concerns about Facebook's ambiguity with regard to how user data could be shared with advertisers and marketers.

The catch for privacy advocacy groups is that, this time around, they run the risk of looking like they're crying wolf. When Facebook launched its redesigned privacy settings this spring, the usual suspects raised concern, a number of prominent tech pundits deleted their Facebook accounts, and a coalition of U.S. senators began to speak up as well.

In the end, the average Facebook user didn't seem to care. No Capitol Hill battle ensued, though Facebook made a few concessions that seemed designed to appease dissidents in the policymaking world. And the social network's breakneck rate of growth didn't slow down. There may indeed be legitimate issues with the way that Facebook Places has been constructed, but privacy advocacy groups haven't been able to derail the company's plans thus far, and there's no sign that this situation will be any different.