Google’s Social Network Is Playground For Online Predators, Explicit Sexual Content, Tech Whistleblower Finds; Consumer Watchdog Says Google Must Police Google+

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SANTA MONICA, CA — Google has allowed its social network to become a virtual playground for online predators and explicit sexual content, a seven-month study by a tech industry whistleblower has found, and Consumer Watchdog today called on the Internet giant “to take immediate action to police and clean up your social network, Google+.”

In a letter to Google CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and Privacy Project Director John M. Simpson wrote:

“Periodic monitoring of the service since last March through September by a tech industry whistleblower demonstrates that Google+ has become a virtual playground for online predators. Consumer Watchdog’s own study confirmed many of the whistleblower’s findings.  We believe that in order to grow Google+’s user base as quickly as possible, you have put growth far ahead of the safety and security of its users.  To assist you in solving the problem as soon as possible, we are including a copy of the whistleblower’s study with this letter.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here:

View a redacted copy of the whistleblower’s report here:

The letter also called on Google to fix a “fundamental design flaw that we believe presents substantial privacy vulnerabilities for users.”  Google+ allows a user to add someone to their “Circle” without that person’s agreement.

“The user cannot remove himself from the sender’s Circle, no matter what, once that person has placed them in their Circle,” Court and Simpson wrote. “A user is forced to be publicly associated with someone with whom they do not wish to be associated.  We believe this is a fundamental privacy flaw and must be fixed.  People must have the right to choose with whom they are associated.”

The public interest group’s letter noted that Google recently announced efforts to block Google Search from returning links to child sexual abuse material from appearing in its results and called that effort commendable. It noted that Google also recently cooperated in the arrest of a pedophile who was storing images on its Picasa service.

“However, there is a simple and more important step you must take if people are to believe you are genuinely concerned about combating this depravity,” Court and Simpson wrote. “Turn your attention immediately to Google+ and bring order to a “Wild West” atmosphere that you are actively encouraging people to use.”

The Consumer Watchdog letter cited Schmidt’s infamous quote: “There is what I call the creepy line.  The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”

“Sadly, Google+ has crossed far over the ‘creepy line,’” Court and Simpson wrote. The letter also cited a recent comment by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood in challenging Google to do more to combat illegal behavior of those using its services.

“In my 10 years as attorney general, I have dealt with a lot of large corporate wrongdoers,” Hood said. “I must say that yours is the first I have encountered to have no corporate conscience for the safety of its customers…”

“We agree with Attorney General Hood and call on you to act decisively to protect your users,” Court and Simpson wrote.

A tech industry whistleblower monitored Google+ since last March through September and found the disturbing content. Consumer Watchdog’s own investigation confirmed many of the whistleblower’s findings.  Following are highlights of the whistleblower’s study:

  1. In order to grow the Google+ social network as quickly as possible, it appears that Google has turned a blind eye to a huge privacy vulnerability that allows users to add other users, including minors, to their Circles without their permission. This has occurred despite numerous complaints and demands from users that Google fix the privacy vulnerabilities with the Circles feature, something it appears Google has steadfastly refused to do.
  2. This vulnerability further “imprisons” users by making it impossible for them to disassociate themselves (or delete themselves) from the Circles of Google+ users with whom they have no desire to be associated or affiliated with. In other words, once someone adds you to his/her Circle, there is no escape.
  3. Google+ users routinely post pornographic material including material intended to drive traffic to commercial pornography sites, in clear violation of Google’s own User Content and Conduct Policy.
  4. Google+ allows users to push unwanted pornographic images to other users (including teens and children) without their permission.
  5. Google+ will often make Suggestions that users add teens and even children to their Circles, even when those users’ profiles, postings, community membership and Google+ search history include pornography, membership in sex-related communities, other age inappropriate content, and even pedophile related content. In this sense, the Google+ Suggestions feature actually serves as a recruitment tool to pedophiles and sexual predators – suggesting that such predators add additional children to their Circles.
  6. Google+ users include several registered sex offenders or others who have been arrested for child pornography.
  7. Google+ offers several Communities in which minors (or even adults posing as minors) advertise the trading of sexually explicit images and photographs of each other in apparent violation of its User Content & Conduct Policy.
  8. Hundreds of suspected pedophiles and sexual predator rackets who traffic in highly sexual and exploitive images of their child victims appear to be both using Google+ and posting these images to the social network. Many of these images border on outright child pornography.
  9. Google+ is also being used by suspected pedophiles to troll for underage users in order to engage them in sexually suggestive/sexually explicit online conversations, texts, and even videos.
  10. Google+ users have been complaining about pedophile communities and sexual predators on the social networking site since it’s launch. But other than small networks of volunteers who have limited success shutting down such Communities and banning users by reporting specific instances of violations to Google’s User Content and Conduct Policy, Google appears to have done little to address the issue.

NB: If you’re a journalist and want an unredacted copy of the tech whistleblower’s study on a background basis for your information, but not to be posted online, contact John M. Simpson at: [email protected]

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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