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With friend-finders like these, Facebook may find itself sued

According to one company, the social network stole the idea for the geo-based Find Friends Nearby, which helps people locate new acquaintances. Facebook says it was just a test.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read
Facebook hackathon
A Facebook engineer says that Find Friends Nearby came out of one of its hackathons. (Seen here is Hackathon 31, which took place May 17, 2012.) The CEO of Friendthem thinks otherwise. Matt Harnack / Facebook

Last update: 11:10 a.m. PT

Facebook's new feature that helps users discover who's around them is a stolen idea, according to a company that's been offering a similar service for the past year.

Facebook's new friend finding feature.
Facebook's new friend finding feature. Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

The chief executive at Friendthem, a service that shows users others who are nearby based on geo-location, says that his company got there first, and even discussed the idea with a company executive earlier this year.

"I was amazed on Sunday to read that Facebook is blatantly stealing our idea with what they are calling, 'Find Friends Nearby,' Charles Sankowich, Friendthem's CEO said in a statement e-mailed to CNET and other outlets today.

"Facebook engineer Ryan Patterson claims the feature was born at a hackathon as 'Friendshake,' but we believe they simply stole trademarked materials of Friendthem.com," he added.

For its part, Facebook is downplaying the feature, and referred to it as a test.

"This wasn't a formal release -- this was something that a few engineers were testing," a company spokesperson told CNET in an e-mailed statement. "With all tests, some get released as full products, others don't."

In an interview with CNET, Sankowich said that he discussed what his company did with an unnamed, high-level Facebook executive at a dinner in February, with that person later telling him "I really like your idea." Sankowich says he followed up with that same person immediately after Facebook acquired Glancee -- another geo-based social discovery tool -- but that his correspondence went unanswered.

The new feature in question, which was first spotted by tech blog TechCrunch, launched quietly yesterday on Facebook's mobile application. It uses location to figure out what other Facebook users are around you, all in the hopes that users can extend their social connections.

That idea, of course, is not a new one. Geo-focused social networks began cropping up several years ago, in step with a burgeoning crop of GPS-enabled smartphones. That trend could most recently be seen in the launch of Highlight at the South by Southwest Interactive show this past March. Much like Facebook's new feature, it's designed to show you who's nearby and how you might be connected.

But when it comes to pure peer-to-peer discovery, Sankowich says his company got to this particular idea first, and will take aim at Facebook with a lawsuit. However, he would not go into details about the company's legal strategy, or what it will seek out from that complaint.

"I'm not looking to exploit this for money," Sankowich said. "I know how valuable, and important our idea is. And we've worked really really hard to brand ourselves and to market ourselves."

Updated at 11:10 a.m. with comment from Facebook.

Update at 11:30 a.m. PT: Facebook appears to have disabled the feature from mobile devices through its own iOS and Android application, as well as its mobile site. CNET is looking into this and will provide an update when we know more.