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Checking In: Location Based Social Media

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With the launch of Facebook Places, news that Facebook is buying location-based check-in service Hot Potato, and the continuing expansion of services like Foursquare and many others, the world of geotagging and location-based loyalty programs is going completely crazy.

But with this dynamic new technology in the public eye nearly every day, the question must be asked: so what?  Is this really as dramatic a change as everyone is predicting?  Are there legal issues which you should consider as you walk this new pathway?

As for the first question, the answer is quite simple: yes.  More and more of your experience on the Internet is likely to be through mobile devices, and specifically through apps.  This means that an opportunity is present for every marketer on the planet: if they know where you are, they can give you things you need.  If you are in their store, they can give you a coupon through your mobile device.  If they know you are near their store, they can come up with something to encourage you to visit.  If you want access to things and experiences, and those things and experiences can find you(as opposed to the more traditional reverse of that) then you may buy things you didn’t even know were available.  You may participate in games that could not have been created without your personal location being relevant to game play.  In other words, if folks can find out where you are, they can know a lot more about what you want, need or might be convinced to do.

So yes, geotagging will not be going away anytime soon.

But should you be concerned? Of course! Are there any developments on the web that do not concern lawyers?

First, let’s take the obvious: if there is a record of where you are at a given time, suddenly that’s evidence.  There are an almost infinite number of claims where the question “where were you on the night of…” is relevant.  Suddenly, there’s an opportunity for proof, or alibis, or just corroboration.  This may, in fact, present a revolution in the world of e-discovery.

Beyond that, the issues are somewhat more fact specific.  Privacy will, obviously, remain a concern.  If you are publicizing where you are (or if someone is doing so without your consent) and you are endangered for some reason as a result (the amusing but disturbing site pleaserobme is a prime example of how this could be used for nefarious purposes).  How is this information being collected, and is it in compliance with your privacy policy (or, even more concerning, COPPA or foreign privacy directives)?  If this is part of a loyalty program, or a coupon/rebate program, do you have your rules set up properly?  Do you even know that you need rules for a loyalty program (most folks don’t realize that they can’t merely copy the frequent flyer programs used by the airlines — they are preempted out of state laws by the FAA)?

Most critically, though, you need to consider whether knowing where your customers are/will be/have been is useful to you, or are you merely jumping on a bandwagon that has no real relevance to your own business model.  In some respects, that remains the biggest risk of anything in social media: getting so blinded by the brilliance of new tools that you loses sight of what is actually important to you and your business.