The news of Google Plus shutting down has drawn criticism from the technology industry, with experts accusing the search giant of taking the decision to mask the utter failure of the social network.
In March Google discovered that a bug in the API for Google Plus, officially styled as Google+, that allowed third-party developers to access data of users who had not granted permission – as long as they were friends with someone who had. The breach affected around 500,000 users.
Timeline for US tech giants
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They opted not to disclose the breach, however at the start of this week the Wall Street Journal broke news of its occurrence along with a damning internal memo that the newspaper had obtained.
In it, Google officials warned that disclosing the breach would lead to “us coming into the spotlight alongside or even instead of Facebook despite having stayed under the radar throughout the Cambridge Analytica scandal”.
Following the publication of the WSJ article, Google announced the news of Google Plus shutting down.
Google Plus shutting down: an excuse to hide failure
Google Plus has not had the most successful of lifespans, being launched to a muted public response before ultimately fading into obscurity. And for this reason, some feel the decision is simply a way to can the forgotten social media platform without having to officially admit to failure.
“Another day, another social media privacy breach, but not every day does this cause a social network to shut down – especially one born with a silver spoon in its mouth, such as Google+,” said Dr Ben Marder, senior lecturer in marketing at University of Edinburgh Business School.
“The privacy breach of Google is of course unacceptable, but it would appear that the US giant may have used this opportunity as a somewhat murky way to ‘save face’, providing a smoke screen to the real reason for shutting Google+ down.
“It looks like Google has been considering pulling the plug on its social media network for years and the latest privacy issue was either the straw that broke the camel’s back, or a thorny but convenient means to remove their slightly embarrassing contribution to the world of social media, without the ever so proud Google saying they had failed.”
Why Google+ failed
Despite effectively having every person with a Gmail account on its membership list from launch, Google+ was never a success, with experts criticising its well-meaning intent as ultimately flawed.
“The core selling point of the network was that it promoted ‘circles’ for friends as a means to keep your posts only seen by people you want to see them – for example a boozy stag party with college friends would only be posted to them and not to be accessed by colleagues at work,” said Marder.
“In essence, Google + was created with a promise that it would solve the ‘multiple audience problem’ an issue that has been shown to cause anxiety within network members as content is consumed beyond those it is undesired.”
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However, he argued, is this produced an ultimately sterile social media experience.
“People will say that they want to keep their various different social circles separate, no doubt this was what was reported in market research when Google was designing their network. However, what people are reluctant to say is a key component of what makes social media so fascinating is seeing the posts maybe you shouldn’t have, the kind of posts that would spark interest and may be gossiped about,” he said.
“Google+ is best described, like a person you would rather not have a second date with, ‘nice but boring’. At least LinkedIn knows it is boring, but fulfills a specific niche, Google + was essentially a dull jack-of-all trades.”
The implications of the security breach
Away from the decision to shut down Google+ is the fact that the company opted to remain quiet about a significant security breach – something that generally produces ire. Of course by cutting ties with the failed social network Google clearly intends to distance itself from the damage, but for cybersecurity experts its actions ultimately demonstrate the need for better regulation.
“It’s a textbook example of the unintended consequences of regulation – in forcing companies to comply with tough new security rules, businesses hide breaches and hacks out of fear of being the one company caught in the spotlight,” said Etienne Greeff, CTO and co-founder, SecureData.
“Google didn’t come clean on the compromise, because they were worried about regulatory consequences. While the tech giant went beyond its ‘legal requirement in determining whether to provide notice’, it appears that regulation like GDPR is not enough of a deterrent for companies to take the safety of customer data seriously. And so this type of event keeps on happening.”