‘We are Google’s product, not its customers’

Users who violate the community rules on the new Google+ social networking site can lose access to all Google services.

Google logo in background
Google’s new social networking platform, Google+, has garnered praise for its technological features; but violating its terms of service can have major consequences [Reuters]

With the beta release of Google+ this past week, the global tech community is already ruminating on how the new service might be a “game changer” for social media. A plethora of new features – including a video chat platform for up to ten people – ensure that Google+ will be a success, at least in certain circles.

Along with the initial excitement, concerns about the platform are arising, particularly around its privacy and user policies. In 2010, Google launched social platform Buzz, only to face a class action lawsuit over its exposure of users’ email contacts (full disclosure: the organisation where I work, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was among the recipients in the settlement).

While so far, there have been few complaints – and in fact, heaps of praise – as to how Google+ has dealt with privacy, there are concerns as to what happens when a user runs afoul of the platform’s Terms of Service. Given how intertwined the social platform is with the rest of Google’s products (and how reliant so many of us are on Google products), breaking the rules on Google+ could have serious implications.

Following the rules

Google offers two sets of rules for users of the Google+ service: Its overarching Terms of Service (ToS), which apply to all of Google, and a set of Community Standards specific to the social networking site.

The community standards ban a handful of behaviors: no nudity or hate speech, no impersonating other users, no spam malware or phishing. They also warn users against copyright violation, offering a clear procedure for complainants to file a DMCA notice.

While the rules should be quite clear to users, what isn’t clear is the ramifications of breaking them. On Facebook, users who break the rules have often seen their accounts closed down entirely. On YouTube, which is owned by Google, users who post inappropriate content are usually given a warning or two before losing access to their accounts for a period of time, or sometimes permanently.

The latest Google service is too new for anyone to determine what the result of a minor ToS violation might be, but one example making rounds in the blogosphere is hopefully no indicator.

Lose one service, lose them all?

In compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), US-based web companies must get parental permission for users under 13 years of age. Because that process is typically onerous, most platforms, including Google, limit their services to users aged 13 and up.

Last week, an underage Gmail user in the Netherlands signed up for a Google+ account, only to be kicked off of all Google services for the ToS violation. According to a blog post written by the child’s father, the message from Google states that the young boy’s account will be deleted within 29 days if he cannot provide proof of age.

While this is perhaps an extreme example – after all, Google is legally obligated to act within the restrictions of COPPA – it is one that could have serious implications for anyone who breaks the rules, intentionally or otherwise.

The tradeoff to this risk is the convenience of having one’s services – email, documents, social networking, and more – in one place. And yet, break the rules on one and you could lose them all.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Google will take that route. More likely is that most Google+ violations will garner a warning, or perhaps an eviction, from that service alone. But more egregious offenses could cause one to lose years of documents or emails.

‘The Googlisation of Everything’

For some, this might raise larger questions about the utility of using one service for everything. Author Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose book The Googlisation of Everything was released earlier this year, has called Google a “monopolist” in the space of web-based advertising, noting that “we are Google’s product, not its customers”.

It is presumably because of this that Google seeks to dominate so many markets, from web search to email, and now social networking. And while Vaidhyanathan is quick to point out that web-based advertising is the only space in which Google is truly a monopolist, Google’s ability to monetise just about any product could see it beat out its competition in the long haul.

Google’s philosophy has always been “don’t be evil”, but critics abound who see the company as just that.
Still, Google is often first to fess up to its errors, such as it famously did in 2010 when it stopped censoring search results in China after four years of kowtowing to the Chinese government’s censorship demands.

Google+ may seek to replicate – or more accurately, improve – the social networking model made famous by predecessors MySpace and Facebook. But if it succeeds, it will have done so for a reason: likely not as a matter of convenience, but because of superior practices and policies.

Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.