Man Jailed for Gmail Invite to Ex-Girlfriend

A man says an automatic feature of Google+ landed him in jail.

ByABC News
January 10, 2014, 8:38 AM
Vic Gundotra, Google Senior Vice President of Engineering, talks about Google Plus at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco, June 27, 2012.
Vic Gundotra, Google Senior Vice President of Engineering, talks about Google Plus at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco, June 27, 2012.
Paul Sakuma/AP Photo

Jan. 10, 2014 -- In what one expert on Internet privacy calls "a worst-case scenario," a Massachusetts man was jailed for sending his ex-girlfriend (who had a restraining order against him) an email invitation to join Google+.

But Thomas Gagnon contends he didn't send it; Google did, without his knowledge or consent.

When his ex-girlfriend received the invitation, according to the Salem News, she went to the police, complaining Gagnon had violated the restraining order by sending her the email. Police agreed and arrested him, the News reported. He was jailed then released on $500 bail.

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A hearing in the case has been set for Feb. 6. Gagnon's attorney, Neil Hourihan, told the News his client has no idea how the invitation got sent, since Gagnon insists he didn't send it.

Efforts by ABC News to contact Hourihan and Gagnon were not successful.

Attorney Bradley Shear of Bethesda, Md., an internationally recognized expert on Internet privacy, told ABC News it's entirely possible Gagnon is telling the truth -- that he did not intentionally or knowingly send the invitation. "If he didn't send it -- if Google sent it without his permission and he was jailed for it -- Google could be facing major liability," Shear said.

Google did not respond to a request for comment by ABC News.

Google+ allows users to aggregate their email contacts into various groups -- school classmates, say, or professional associates or old flames. Moving a contact from one category to another, Shear explained, can trigger Google to send, automatically, an email to the contact inviting them to join Google+.

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Shear pointed out a Google product forum from 2011 and 2012 titled "Prevent automatic email invitations to Google+?" that contains a number of angry complaints by Google+ users about the automatic invitation feature.

One customer wrote: "As soon as I add an email to a circle, Google seems to send an email automatically asking that person to join Google Plus. Is there any way of turning this off? I don't want Google to send any email on my behalf without my permission. At least I would expect some sort of warning."

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In response these complaints, a Google Community Manager calling herself "Natalie" responded: "Thanks for your feedback. Right now the emails that go out alert people of your activity on Google+, and more importantly the sharing of content with them. We send them an email when they aren't yet on Google+ so they know that you are out there in the world [of] G+. They should only incur this email once."

But once was all it took to land Gagnon in jail.

Another Google+ user on the same forum demands to know: "Why was I not warned this was going to occur[?] Why on earth do you presume to know who I want to invite?"

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Shear noted: "Google is going through every one of your contacts and sending them an invitation, whether it's your doctor, your lawyer, your mistress, or your ex-fiancee who's got a restraining order against you."

He called this, "a perfect example of what happens when a company oversteps its bounds."