Picture the scene: you turn on your computer and login to your profile with every intention of doing work. You think to yourself, ‘I’ll just check my Google+ account…’ Wait, Google+? Chances are you have been in that situation before but with Facebook or another social media platform. This may explain why in April 2019 Google shut down its attempt at establishing a new social media platform seven years after its initial creation
Launched in 2011, Google+ was the internet company’s answer to Facebook. It included all the standard aspects of social media, such as a user profile and a friends list. The ‘Circles’ function was the main attempt at distinguishing themselves from rival networks. It allowed users to organise people into groups, who could then see specific private content in that circle. Google+ gained an average of 540 million monthly active users. But it was later reported that the average time spent on the website was a mere five seconds, suggesting navigational errors rather than intentional clicks. It will nevertheless remain available for businesses to use. This is actually Google’s fourth attempt at creating a social network to rival Facebook. Following Google Buzz (which lasted one year), Google Friend Connect (a four-year long stint) and Orkut (which lasted ten years, but was primarily active in and operated from Brazil).
The history of Google+ has been wrought with difficulty. It was the subject of controversy after an account was required to comment or upload videos onto YouTube (see Emma Blackery’s infamous video about the issue). The final nail in the coffin, however, was a second data breach in Spring 2018, which affected approximately 52.5 million users. Personal data, such as users’ names, dates of births and locations, may have been viewed by third parties, regardless of whether they were set to private. Ben Smith, Vice President of Engineering at Google, stated that they found ‘no evidence that any developer was aware of this bug, or abusing the API, and we found no evidence that any profile data was misused.’ But it is important to bear in mind that it took Google four months to inform consumers that their data had been compromised, a move which is decidedly shady.
Google has missed the social media hype train, perhaps because it never offered anything particularly unique or not already available on Facebook. Yet the decision to close the website primarily resulted from the data breach. This is in stark contrast to Facebook’s recent actions, whose tactics essentially involve avoiding problems until they go away.
An exposé by the Observer in March 2018 revealed that millions of users’ personal data had been harvested from Facebook and shared with the Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that has since closed down due to the scandal. After numerous interviews, interrogations by Congress and constant demands to take responsibility for his actions, Mark Zuckerberg announced a new tool for Facebook that would increase the amount of control users had over their profile, which would specifically allow users to delete information Facebook holds about them. Unfortunately, almost a year later, we are still waiting for such an option to be implemented. Facebook is presenting an image of itself as a company that cares about their users privacy on the surface, only to ignore any real concerns brought to them.
We are becoming increasingly more aware of how sharing information on social media threatens our privacy. It can be assumed that any app you sign into using your Facebook account will share information with the social media company. In a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal, which tested 70 apps that handled sensitive information, eleven were found to be sharing at least some personal information with Facebook. This included an ovulation tracker, several weight loss apps and various real estate apps, leading to an obvious breach in consumer privacy. At its most extreme, such a breach could enable online identity theft.
Although similar concerns led to the shutdown of Google+, Facebook is not willing to take these issues seriously. This is why it is important to be aware of the sheer amount of information companies hold about you. Facebook stores every message, file and even your contacts. Everywhere you login to their site and every device you access it with is all saved.
It is tempting to say that since Google shut down Google+ following the data breach, that they are the more ethical company and are on the side of the consumer. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Using profiling algorithms, Google creates a profile of their users to create targeted adverts. Chances are it has an advertisement profile based on your age, location, gender, interests and more. Furthermore, from the moment you use Google, if your location settings are on, it tracks everywhere you go and the time it takes you to get there. You can even see how long you spent in certain places. Want to see your timeline? Go onto Google Maps, click ‘timeline’ and prepare to be a little freaked out.
Nowadays having a social media account is the norm. We expect to stay connected, no matter the time or place. But it is important to stay informed and take responsibility for the information you are putting online. It is obvious that companies care, but only insofar as how they can use your information to make more money. Of course, perhaps you do not care about that – after all, instant access to adverts tailor-made for you can be convenient. But once we put our data online, we lose control of it. We are forced to put our trust in companies such as Google and Facebook to take care of our personal information. But these companies are ultimately concerned with making profit. Protecting our data is not their top priority.