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Consumer Watchdog Says Google+ Circles Admit Just Anyone, Friend Or Not

CONSUMERAFFAIRS.COM

But it also thanks Google for taking steps against online predators

Fairly or not, people often judge you by the company you keep. And the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog says this can cause huge problems for people with Google+ accounts, who might not be able to control who does or does not associate with their virtual online personae.

In December, Consumer Watchdog criticized Google for allowing Google+ to become “a virtual playground for online predators and explicit sexual content” (according to this .pdf letter CW sent to Google).

 

To back its claims, CW also sent Google a detailed, 27-page study (which is also available in .pdf form, but be warned: due to sexually explicit content it might not be suitable to download or read on your workplace computer).

 

On January 9, Consumer Watchdog thanked Google for clearing out some of the more predatory Google+ accounts but brought another problem to the company's attention: pretty much any Google+ user can add people to their “Circles” whether they want to be there or now.

 

In social media terminology, Facebook users have “friend lists,” whereas Google+ users have people in their “Circles.” In theory they're pretty much the same thing, only on different social media platforms, so that saying “Let's be Facebook friends” or “Let me add you to my Google+ circle” are more or less synonymous.

 

Except they're not. There's a big distinction between becoming somebody's Facebook friend and joining their Google+ Circle, as Consumer Watchdog said:

 

[On Facebook] a person receiving a request from an individual to be their “friend” must approve that request first. If the person chooses not to accept, he or she is in no way associated with the individual.

On Google+ any individual can add a user to his Circles. If the user does not appreciate the posts he sends to them, they can block the individual. However, if anyone visits the person’s profile and he has opted to display publicly who is in his Circles, the user’s name and picture will still appear there. The user cannot remove himself from the sender’s Circles, no matter what, once that person has placed them in their Circle's. A user is forced to be publicly associated with someone with whom they do not wish to be associated.... This is a fundamental privacy flaw and must be fixed. People must have the right to choose with whom they are associated.

Friends and Circles

In other words: on Facebook, I can't add you to my “friends” list (or vice-versa) unless we both agree to it. But on Google+, I can add you to my “circle” whether you want me to or not — so anyone looking through the list of people in my Circle will see your name there, and naturally assume that you chose to associate with me.

 

Google has already been under fire for accusations that it's going too far in its attempts to expand the size of its Google+ user base (or at least increase the number of people who have Google+ accounts, whether or not they actually use them).

 

Just this week, we learned the story of Thomas Gagnon, who was arrested after sending a Google+ invite to an ex-girlfriend who had taken out a restraining order against him — except Gagnon's attorney says Google sent the invite automatically, without his client's knowledge or approval. (Gagnon was arrested in late December; as this story is published, Google has not yet released any records related to the invitation or who exactly sent it.)

 

There's an acronym you'll often see used in online forums: IRL, which stands for “In Real Life” (as opposed to the “virtual” life on the Internet). It usually appears in such contexts as, “I only talk to him online; we've never met IRL.” But as Gagnon's story shows, and Consumer Watchdog's concerns further underscore, “Internet vs. real life” is probably a false distinction — nowadays, the Internet is part of real life, and what you do on the Internet can have real-life consequences … even if you had no idea you did it, because Google's auto-bots did it for you.

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Jennifer Abel has worked as a reporter and editor for local newspapers in Connecticut. She contributes to online publications including Playboy, the Guardian, Anorak, Daily Dot, Salon and Mashable.

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Email Jennifer Abel  Phone: 866-773-0221