Google is closing the Google+ social network after an error exposed the private data of hundreds of thousands of users last spring, in an incident which the company never disclosed to those affected.
Google put the “final nail in the coffin” of the Google+ product by shutting down “all consumer functionality,” the Wall Street Journal reported citing an internal memo.
The project launched in 2011 as an alternative to other social networks ended up being a huge failure for the company. The breach happened after a software glitch in the site gave outside developers potential access to private profile data including names, email addresses, birth dates, genders, occupations and more.
The memo viewed by the Journal said that disclosing the incident publicly would possibly trigger “immediate regulatory interest” and do damage to the company’s reputation. Reporting the incident would result “in us coming into the spotlight alongside or even instead of Facebook despite having stayed under the radar throughout the Cambridge Analytica scandal,” it warned.
The Journal reported that the Google+ breach exposed Google’s “concerted efforts to avoid public scrutiny of how it handles user information” at a time when regulators are the public are trying to do more to hold tech companies to account.
Google goes “beyond legal requirements” and applies “several criteria focused on our users” when deciding whether to provide notice, a spokesperson said in a statement. The company said it had considered whether or not it could accurately identify which 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 here,” the spokesperson said.
The leaked memo says that while there is no evidence that outside developers misused any data, there is still no way to know for sure.
As part of a slew of new security measures, Google is expected to clamp down on the amount of data it provides to outside developers through application programming interfaces (APIs), sources told the Journal.
As part of an audit of APIs, Google also discovered that Google+ had also been permitting developers to obtain data from users who never wanted it to be shared publicly — but a bug in the API meant they could collect data even if it was explicitly marked non-public through Google’s privacy settings.
New European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules which went into effect in May would have required Google to disclose the information to regulators within 72 hours under threat of penalty, but the Google+ leak was discovered in March, before the GDPR regulations came in and therefore was not covered by the European rules, according to Al Saikali, a lawyer who spoke to the Journal.
Saikali said it was possible that Google could face class action lawsuits over its decision not to disclose the breach. “The story here that the plaintiffs will tell is that Google knew something here and hid it. That by itself is enough to make the lawyers salivate,” he said.
Recently, the White House drafted an executive order for President Donald Trump’s signature that would instruct federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to open investigations into the business practices of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and other social media companies.
The order is in its preliminary stages and hasn’t yet been run past other government agencies, according to a White House official. Business Insider obtained a draft of the order.
The document instructs U.S. antitrust authorities to “thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws.”
It instructs other government agencies to recommend within a month after it’s signed actions that could potentially “protect competition among online platforms and address online platform bias.”
The document doesn’t name any specific companies. If signed, the order would represent a significant escalation of Trump’s antipathy toward Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR) and other social media companies, whom he has publicly accused of silencing conservative voices and news sources online.
“Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices,’ Trump said on Twitter in August. “Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump Administration, we won’t let that happen. They are closing down the opinions of many people on the RIGHT, while at the same time doing nothing to others.”
Social media companies have acknowledged in congressional hearings that their efforts to enforce prohibitions against online harassment have sometimes led to erroneous punishment of political figures on both the left and right, and that once discovered those mistakes have been corrected. They say there is no systematic effort to silence conservative voices.
The possibility of an executive order emerged as Attorney General Jeff Sessions prepares for a Sept. 25 briefing by state attorneys general who are already investigating the tech firms’ practices.
The meeting, which will include a representative of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, is intended to help Sessions decide if there’s a federal case to be made against the companies, two people familiar with the matter have said. At least one of the attorneys general participating in the meeting has indicated he seeks to break up the companies.
Growing movements on the right and left argue that companies including Google and Facebook engage in anticompetitive behavior. The companies reject the accusation, arguing they face robust competition and that many of their products are free. Bias has not typically figured in antitrust examinations.
In July, for instance, Twitter algorithms limited the visibility of some Republicans in profile searches. Jack Dorsey, the company’s chief executive officer, testified before Congress in September that the limits also affected some Democrats as the site tried to enforce policies against threats, hate, harassment or other forms of abusive speech. The moves were reversed.
A Pew Research Center survey earlier this year found that 72 percent of Americans, and 85 percent of Republicans, think it’s likely that social media companies intentionally censor political viewpoints that those companies find objectionable.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
October 8th, 2018