Google’s Nonstop Social Misadventure

Google’s uneven foray into the social Web has left it vulnerable to thrashings in a remarkable number of spheres. Once unshakable, the giant is currently taking heat from national and international government, employees and market rivals, and from an increasingly discomfited public.

Although people’s wholehearted embrace of Google Search, Gmail, and YouTube, which the company acquired in 2006, is a strong buffer against new vulnerabilities, it’s uncertain how long it will hold up. Individuals, American attorneys general, and the French Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) have all been expressing heebie-jeebies about Google’s 2012 privacy changes and the social network Google+ was not that big of a splash. People aren’t using it like they are Facebook, and James Whittaker, a top Google engineer who just quit, published a blustery letter singling out Google+ as a failure for the company as product, and as a vision.

Buzz, the company’s disastrous social Web experiment brought in a 2011 settlement with Federal Trade Commission on charges of deceptive practices. Now, the FTC has opened another investigation into possible violations of that settlement after Google was found to have bypassed security settings to track the Web activities of millions by implanting stealth tracking codes into Safari browsers. The newest tracking fiasco originated in the rollout of the +1, a “social layer” added to Google Search last year.

Google already accepted that the violations occurred, but defends itself by saying they were “inadvertent.” If that’s found to not be the case, the fines for the violations could be astronomical: millions were tracked and the cost per violation, per day is $16,000.

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