October 10, 2018
Google is shutting down its Google+ social network in the wake of revelation that a software bug exposed the data of up to 500,000 Google+ users since 2015. The company also debuted tools that give users more control over the data they share with Google-connected apps and services. The demise of Google+ is in stark contrast to its 2011 launch, when it represented an “exclusive club” that required a private invitation to enter. In following years, Google discovered running a social network is trickier than it appears to be.
Wired reports that, “the dissonance epitomizes the broader tension data behemoths like Google and Facebook have lately grappled with over how to reconcile their competing priorities of safeguarding user trust and turning a healthy profit.”
Google discovered the bug, which exposed user names, email addresses, occupations, genders and ages, but “purposefully kept it quiet for months, with no apparent plans to let anyone ever know,”according to The Wall Street Journal.
Google vice president of engineering Ben Smith noted that, “Our Privacy & Data Protection Office reviewed this issue, looking at the type of data involved, whether we could accurately identify the users to inform, whether there was any evidence of misuse, and whether there were any actions a developer or user could take in response. None of these thresholds were met in this instance.”
Google did establish Project Strobe, however, which aims to give users “more control over their account data, and which information gets shared with third-party apps.” Google now also requires “all third-party applications — including mobile apps — that access sensitive Gmail APIs … to submit to a thorough review.” Google will rely on an independent auditing firm and charge developers $15,000 to $75,000.
At the Electronic Privacy Information Center, president Marc Rotenberg called these “positive steps,” but added that, “we’re passed the point where Google should get to decide if Google has done enough to address a problem.”
WSJ elsewhere reports that the move to close Google+ “formalizes Google’s failure to build a social network with staying power and highlights the challenge for other players to compete with Facebook … [which] now owns four of the top social-media apps.”
Snapchat, launched in 2011, the same year as Google+, counts 188 million people who use it daily, and Twitter, established in 2006, reports 335 million monthly users. Google’s deep pockets, adds WSJ, spurred Facebook to take that company as a serious threat, with chief executive Mark Zuckerberg telling employees to focus full attention on that threat.
One year after its launch, “Google+ was already falling short of expectations,” with comScore data showing that users didn’t stay on the site. One group that continues to use Google+ are the businesses that rely on it for employee communication; Google plans to “launch social features specifically built for businesses.”