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Why Do Child Porn Predators Love Google+?

VOCATIV.COM

No one noticed a report about rampant child porn and sexual predators on Google+. Not even Google

In late November, Google chairman Eric Schmidt described in the Daily Mail Google’s plans to crack down on child pornography on YouTube, the video platform Google owns and operates:

“We actively remove child sexual abuse imagery from our services and immediately report abuse to the authorities,” Schmidt wrote, outlining the technology he would use to eliminate blatant pornographic footage involving children on the site. He continued: “The impact will be truly global.”

What Schmidt failed to acknowledge in his “truly global” announcement was how child pornography and sexual predators were pervading another site in Google’s cache: Google’s eponymous social networking platform, Google Plus, launched in 2011. Schmidt’s catchall networking site, which revolves around the creation of friend “circles,” remains populated by sexual predators on the hunt for child and teen porn.

“We all know that there’s a dark side to the Internet, but most of that people have to go out of their way to look at it,” says John Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog, a California-based advocacy group. Simpson adds: “That’s not the case with Google Plus.”

In a 27-page report published in December, the result of a seven-month investigation by an anonymous Internet whistle-blower, Consumer Watchdog presents a number of features unique to Google Plus that make the site a haven for child-porn perverts. Of those features, the organization highlights in particular the site’s hallmark “circles,” online social groups that users create to organize the people they follow. Circles allow Google Plus users to add fellow users to their networks without their recipients’ permission, meaning that perverts, as a result, may follow stashes of children without the kids’ accepting their requests (à la Facebook friend requests).

HOW WE KNOW

The suggestions of people to follow on Google Plus is similar to what exists on Twitter, or what throws up content suggestions on Amazon and other ecommerce sites. You've followed X, so you might also want to follow Y. Google lays it out in a simple explainer here.

The organization also takes fault with the site’s automated “suggestions”—what the organization calls a “recruitment tool“—by which predators easily find pages and people related to their “interests.” Most suggestions are based on listed interests and those already in their circles.

Google Plus Pervs 07

A screenshot from the Consumer Watchdog report on Google Plus shows how it's being used by child sex predators to organize accounts and solicit child porn material. (Consumer Watchdog)

Technicalities such as these make for a much larger issue, given the scale and spread of Google Plus, which, as Consumer Watchdog highlights in its report, is set to become the world’s second-largest social networking platform.

“Turning a blind eye to the troubling privacy vulnerabilities on Google+ while encouraging greater use of the social network is simply unacceptable,” wrote Consumer Watchdog in an open letter (published along with its December report) to Google’s Schmidt and Google’s chief executive, Larry Page.

Simpson highlights the myriad ways Google has tried to speedily catch up with Facebook’s popularity and build out the Google Plus platform, including requiring all YouTube commenters to use (or create) Google Plus accounts. ”They don’t want to do anything that would cut down in any way on the numbers of people using the network,” says Simpson.

Google, meanwhile, maintains that it works hard to keep sexual content and interactions at a minimum. “We’ve invested significant technology and human resources to make Google Plus a safe place for everyone,” says a Google spokesperson in an email to Vocativ.

The team behind Google Plus also abides by a series of “policies and principles” listed on its website, including two rules that specifically target child porn: “Do not distribute content that exploits children, such as child pornography (including cartoon child porn) or content that presents children in a sexual manner,” and “Do not distribute content that contains nudity, graphic sex acts, or sexually explicit material. Do not drive traffic to commercial pornography sites.”

Google Plus Pervs 05

(Google Plus)

But during an investigation of the platform, Consumer Watchdog’s whistle-blower stumbled on a number of interactions and posts directly defying these two policies. The whistle-blower found not only users who posted video and picture footage linked to outside porn sites, but also “self-identified pedophiles,” those who advertised interests such as “all things pervy.” Many of these pedophiles’ circles included young boys and men, some of them in states of undress.

Google Plus Pervs 06

Another screenshot from the Consumer Watchdog report on Google Plus shows how it can enable predators. (Consumer Watchdog)

Likewise, Consumer Watchdog’s work has gone relatively unnoticed. Internet Watch Foundation, a child protection agency based in Cambridge, U.K., says it knows very little about child-predator interactions on Google Plus.

CHILD PERVS ON YOUTUBE

The behaviors mentioned here are similar to those on YouTube we've already written about. Seemingly innocuous dares posed by users who act like teens turn out to be from perverts who get off on the feet of teens and tweens. 

The Foundation’s press director, Kristoff Clasen, says he has witnessed only a handful of reported incidents, but wouldn’t be surprised if the issues were more behavior-based (relationships between predators and children in Google Plus circles) than content-based (overtly sexual images and videos). ”Any service can be abused if people want to abuse it,” says Clasen.

Nevertheless, pornography, specifically child pornography, is a deep-seated and neglected issue on Google Plus. In a January 2012 post on industry website Computer World, author Richi Jennings highlighted the presence of “hard-core pornographic images” and “continual stream of porno spam” on Google Plus, all of which was “contrary to Google’s content policy.” Jennings also criticized Google for being “asleep at the switch” when it came to issues of sexual—and sometimes illegal—content on the social network.

Fortunately, Google Plus volunteers, ones who monitor the network to flag and report incidents between predators and kids, are helping clamp down on pornographic content. Using hashtags such as #ReportChildPorn, #StopSexualExploitation, #Pedophilia and #ReportChildExploitation, users gather inappropriate content in Google Plus “communities,” the platform’s interest-based groups.

The network’s communities offer a space for concerned volunteers to share what they’ve flagged. “This is not a porn site,” writes Google Plus user Jennifer Isaacs in one such community “against child exploitation.” She adds: “And it is where children seem to be more easily groomed every day.”

While the volunteers’ efforts haven’t proven entirely successful—or at least not enough to revise Google policy—Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson believes monitoring interactions manually, not using some computer program, is the only way to affect change. “Google likes to talk about things having to scale—algorithms, no human intervention,” Simpson says. “I think some of this policing involves human intervention.”

Google, which has yet to respond to Consumer Watchdog’s letter, may soon be forced to crack down in a more widespread way, as it has recently done on YouTube. Writes one Google spokesperson: “We can always do better.”

AUTHOR:

CONTACT: elevy@vocativ.com

@emilywlevy