For some, Google+ notifications are nothing more than an annoyance—a pointless disturbance from what many see as a social network "ghost town." But for Thomas Gagnon, an alert apparently coming from his Google+ account was enough to land him in police custody.
Last month, according to a report, prosecutors said Gagnon's former girlfriend received an invitation to join one of his Google+ Circles. She'd recently broken up with Gagnon and had obtained a restraining order against him soon afterward. Upon discovering the unwelcome Google+ invite from her ex-beau online, she went down to the local police station with a print-out of the invitation. Roughly 90 minutes later, police arrested Gagnon for his Google+ activity and was later charged with violating the restraining order barring contact with her.
The only wrinkle? Gagnon's attorney claims his client never sent the request, arguing that he "has no idea how the woman ... got such an invitation" and "suggesting that it might have been sent by a robot," The Salem News reports. It sounds like an almost comical mishap fit for a soap opera, but the interaction is a common one on Google+, where it's often unclear how or when users are actually on the service—and whether they actually count as "users" to begin with.
To boost engagement on the network, Google began leveraging its more popular properties to force (if not surreptitiously slip) Google+ into our daily routines. In November, for example, YouTube, which is owned by Google, implemented a new commenting system that required a Google+ account in order to contribute to the site's discussions. Google+ Circles, which enable users to classify and manage friends in specific groups (coworkers, roommates), has become more and more embedded in Gmail's contacts feature. And even Google Glass auto-uploads all photos taken on the wearable computer to a private Google+ folder.
But it's not just product integration that is at issue—the company is using its other services to arbitrarily increase the user base of Google+. As The Information recently reported, "The Google+ stream is broadly defined. In the past, statistics about active users in the stream included anytime a person clicked on the red Google+ notifications in the top right corner of their screen while they were using Web search, Gmail, or other Google Web services. The person didn’t actually have to visit [the Google+ homepage] plus.google.com to be counted as 'active.'"
That policy has led to confusion over who is actually a member of Google+. Some users have even complained that Google is mining Gmail contacts to send out Google+ notifications. For example, when users register for Gmail, they're automatically welcomed to Google+, too. And by default, when someone joins Google+ and that person is in your Gmail contacts, Google will automatically send you a notification, along with an invitation suggesting that you "add him [or her] to your Circles to stay connected." The same occurs if someone adds you to a Google+ Circle. (Users have the option of adjusting these settings.)
Google has had a history of privacy hiccups. In 2011, it settled with the FTC over charges that the company used deceptive tactics for its rollout of its failed Buzz social network, which automatically enrolled some users into the service through Gmail, even if they weren't interested in joining.
Perhaps something similar happened to Gagnon—an automated Google+ invite accidentally triggered through his Gmail contacts. Perhaps he simply added or moved his ex-girlfriend to, say, an "Old Acquaintances" Circle, which, unbeknownst to him, caused Google to automatically send a notification to her suggesting that she add him to a Circle too.
Or, of course, perhaps he actually did violate the terms of his restraining order. (Multiple requests to Gagnon for comment were not immediately returned; his attorney was also unreachable. A representative for Google declined to comment on the record.)
Either way, Gagnon's experience, while an extreme example, demonstrates the potential consequences of the lack of transparency surrounding Google+. Neil Hourihan, Gagnon’s lawyer, told a Massachusetts judge that the charges were "absolutely unfounded."
"[He] suggested that unlike Facebook, which requires users to select potential friends, he believes Google+ generates invitations for 'anyone you’ve ever contacted,'" The Salem News reported. "A Salem District Court judge admitted he wasn’t sure exactly how such invitations work on Google’s social media site."
Still, the judge set bail at $500. The case is set to begin in early February.