Nov. 6, 2012 at 6:51 PM ET
Remember Chatroulette? It's a site that randomly paired strangers up for video chats. Nowadays, it mainly serves as a cautionary tale. Developers, don't let your video chat services grow up to have Chatroulette-style male anatomy problems.
Now while Chatroulette has indeed slipped out of the spotlight, Google+ Hangouts are becoming more popular. I occasionally hold public ones and, over the last few months, have seen so many individuals expose themselves that I've threatened to send a collection of offensive Hangout screenshots to the Googler responsible for the service.
Thanks to some changes being implemented though, I might not need to torture anyone just yet.
Google+ director Pavni Diwanji explains — in a post on Google+, naturally — that in an attempt to "weed out bad behavior," Google will now "automatically record a small snippet" whenever a user in a public Google+ Hangout is reported. When this happens, everyone in the Hangout will be notified that it is being recorded and the resulting clip will be deleted after it is reviewed. A Google spokesperson clarified that members of the company's abuse prevention team are the ones who determine if behavior seen in a snippet violates the Google+ terms of service and that the snippet is less than a minute in length.
A snippet is "[o]n the order of seconds," Google senior vice president Vic Gundotra further emphasized to me in a Google+ comment. "[A]nd most importantly, we delete it after review."
This process may sound vaguely familiar because Airtime, a browser-based video chat service created by Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, deals with user abuse by taking snapshots of video chats. The clips are analyzed by software and sent to trained Airtime employees for review if they trigger a risk-management algorithm. Unsurprisingly, this process made a lot of folks uneasy, as they didn't enjoy knowing that their video chats were randomly and continually monitored — even if it was for their own good.
Knowing how negative the response to Airtime's process was, one would think that other services would shy away from incorporating anything similar. Google went ahead and did it anyway — but this time it sounds like it is being done better.
Google's new abuse prevention measure isn't the only way in which Google+ Hangouts are kept clean, of course. While it isn't possible for one user to kick another out of a Hangout, if more than half the participants report or block someone, he or she is booted out. Additionally, individuals with patterns of misbehavior are prevented from joining or creating public Hangouts.
I didn't find the first wave of abuse prevention measures in Google+ Hangouts to be sufficient, but I've got some hope that the threat of recorded snippets being reviewed by an abuse prevention team might be enough to discourage rude folks from unzipping their pants. And if it doesn't? They certainly won't get a second chance to drop trou.
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