The Problem with Google+: Implications for Social Workers
Google is one of the largest and most successful tech giants in the world today. In the past decade, Google has become as ubiquitous to the internet as McDonald’s restaurants have to the fast food industry. When internet users need to perform a search, they refer to the process as “Googling it”. From humble beginnings as a search engine, Google has expanded its services to encompass a variety of functions. Of particular significance is Google+, Google’s answer to Facebook. According to Business Insider, Google+ is now the second-largest social networking site in the world, logging approximately 359 million active users. One of the pioneering features of Google+ is the “Circles” feature, which enables users to categorize other Google+ users (e.g. family, colleagues, friends, etc.). Google+ also allows its users to create and join “Communities”, or groups designed to bring Google+ users together around particular topics. Lastly, Google+ generates a list of “Suggestions” for each user. In other words, Google+ recommends people that a particular user may know or may want to add to his/her Circle. “Suggestions” are made in several ways, most crucially, based on the content the user searches for and profile pages he/she visits.
While Google+ is one of the most innovative social networks on the Internet today, its rapid growth has been associated with serious repercussions for the safety and security of its users. In particular, its touted innovations, “Circles”, “Communities”, and “Suggestions”, represent tremendous privacy susceptibilities that may put users (especially minors and children who utilize Google+) at serious risk for unsolicited, explicit content, pornography, and even communications from suspected sexual predators and pedophiles. In an effort to expose the myriad of significant privacy and safety breaches that Google+ users have encountered, an investigation was performed from March to September 2013 by a tech industry whistleblower.
The investigation’s findings were then confirmed and compiled into a report by Consumer Watchdog (2013), a non-profit organization dedicated to exposing social injustices and confronting the responsible industries. The report substantiates Consumer Watchdog’s assertion that Google+ is grossly negligent in ensuring that its users conform to Google’s User Content & Conduct Policy. This policy explicitly states that content that exploits children, such as child sexual abuse imagery or content that presents children in a sexual manner must not be distributed. Additionally, the policy stresses that sexually explicit material (i.e. nudity, graphic sex acts, sexually explicit material, and mature or offensive content) is expressly prohibited. Consumer Watchdog has since presented these grievances along with the report’s findings to Google, urging for immediate action to “police and clean up” Google+. The following is an outline of the most significant and troubling discoveries from the report:
Users are able to add other users, including minors and children, to their “Circles” without first gaining permission.
- Users are not able to remove themselves from the “Circles” of other users.
- Google+ users regularly post pornographic material including links to commercial pornographic sites, which is a blatant violation of Google’s User Content & Conduct Policy.
- Google+ allows users to send unsolicited pornographic images to other users, effectively enabling pedophiles to target children and minors.
- Google+ frequently makes “Suggestions” that users add children and minors to their “Circles”, even when those users’ profiles, postings, “Community” memberships, and search histories are comprised of child pornography and other pedophile related content.
- Convicted sex offenders who have been arrested for child pornography are known to be active Google+ accountholders.
- Suspected pedophiles and sexual offenders also have a presence on the site.
- Google+ offers several “Communities” in which minors (or even adults posing as minors) encourage the trading of sexually explicit images and videos of its members.
- Google+ is also being exploited by suspected pedophiles to target underage users in order to engage them in sexually explicit online conversations, texts, and even videos.
- Google+ users have been pleading Google to prosecute the abundance of pedophile “Communities” and sexual predators on the social networking site since its launch. However, the only concentrated effort to address this situation has been small networks of volunteers committed to exposing “Communities” and individuals proliferating child pornography.
In response to Consumer Watchdog’s report, Google has shut down some accounts of apparent online predators and eliminated some explicit sexual content. However, a fatal flaw still remains and is garnering much criticism. Specifically, this is the ability to add others to a user’s “Circle” without obtaining permission. Pedophiles and those who wish to exploit children are still present, stalking minors, soliciting and sharing sexually explicit material through the site. Clearly, massive overhaul needs to take place in Google’s policies relating to their social media platform.
Although the resolution of this problem seems to take place entirely on a macro level, there are small steps that we as social workers can take to help halt the exploitation of children on Google+. Specifically, we can bring awareness to this issue. Posting a short blurb on Facebook about what’s going on and providing a link to the consumer watchdog report is a good way to inform your friends and loved ones (consumer watchdog report:http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrgoogle121713.pdf). Additionally, if you come across any inappropriate imagery or content on Google+, you can file a report with Google (here is how you do that: https://support.google.com/plus/answer/1253377?hl=en). Lastly, there many tremendous opportunities, such as volunteering and providing donations, offered through Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey (PCA-NJ) that we can take part in to help stop this issue altogether (please check out PCA-NJ’s website here: http://preventchildabusenj.org/). Regardless of how you help combat this issue, it is vital that we each do our part and ensure that children are protected.
by John Schafhauser