By Richard Nieva

Google Meet and the search giant’s educational tools find a wider audience during the pandemic.

As people around the world hunker down in their homes to slow the spread of COVID-19, one technology has emerged as a lifeline to the outside world: video chat. 

Over the last month, the coronavirus lockdown has fueled a surge in usage of Google’s teleconferencing tool, called Google Meet. Now the company tells CNET the service is adding more than 2 million new users a day worldwide as people look for ways to keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues while staying at home.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian said last week that the service racked up 2 billion minutes of video calls during March and was growing 60% day over day. He said daily usage is 25 times higher than it was in January.

The uptick underscores how crucial video chatting has become for a world stuck in physical isolation. As of this writing, all but eight states in the US have issued stay-at-home orders. Schools, libraries, bars and other businesses deemed nonessential in a time of contagion crisis have closed their doors. 

In particular, usage of Meet has spiked on Saturdays, says Javier Soltero, head of G Suite, Google’s line of productivity services that includes enterprise versions of Gmail, Docs and Drive. The surge was surprising for a service meant primarily for the workplace, especially since people normally aren’t attending business meetings over the weekend.  

“That’s a really strange thing to think about,” Soltero said in an interview last week over — what else? — Google Meet. “It’s used in happy hours, family time, DJ parties, etc.” 

Last month, Google began offering Meet’s premium features for free to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers, the company’s software line for schools. The high-end add-ons include the ability to hold larger meetings, with 250 participants, and to record and save meetings. The features will remain free until the end of September

The shift in habits represents a new normal as the world tries to fend off a deadly pandemic. Google’s video tool, which was rebranded simply to Meet after being previously called Hangouts Meet, isn’t the only one under a newfound spotlight. Zoom, a rival service, has become a household name, despite high-profile security issues. Facebook’s Portal TV chat device, once shunned because of the social network’s past privacy sins, has sold out

Zoom in particular has become the star of the stay-at-home era. The service has ballooned from having 10 million daily users in December to 200 million daily users today. But the service has been plagued by data sharing issues, as well as “Zoombombing,” in which uninvited participants invade a video session. The drop-ins are sometimes coordinated attacks, filled with hate speech and harassment.

Soltero declined to comment on Zoom’s issues. “That’s a really strange thing to think about. It’s used in happy hours, family time, DJ parties, etc.”Javier Soltero, head of G Suite

Google, too, has faced trust issues in the past, especially over data collection and privacy. So why should people trust Google now? Soltero said the company’s history in handling both consumer products as well as business services sets it apart, so having a new influx of people using the service for different purposes won’t be a problem. “We’re not new to this part of the plan,” he said. In a blog post Tuesday, Google highlighted how it secures video calls, including its efforts to “combat abuse and block hijacking attempts.”

Still, Google has to contend with its overall reputation, even though G Suite, which deals mainly with business clients, operates with more-stringent data policies. “The challenge for Google is the overall hangover of concerns that people have for privacy issues with search and other things,” said Bob O’Donnell, president of Technalysis Research. “Fairly or unfairly, that’s the reality.”

Google in the classroom

Stay-at-home orders have produced other byproducts for Google services too. The coronavirus response has spurred usage of the company’s G Suite for Education tools. As physical classes get canceled, schools are depending more on student versions of Gmail, Docs and other Google apps, as well as Chromebook laptops that the search giant provides to school districts for free.  

Google Classroom, which helps teachers manage classes online, has become the No. 1 education app on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms. Last week, Google announced a partnership with California Gov. Gavin Newsom to donate 4,000 Chromebooks to students across the state. 

Some critics have denounced Google’s presence in classrooms. In February, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas sued Google for allegedly violating COPPA, a federal law to protect the online privacy of children, through its educational platforms. The lawsuit accused Google of collecting information on students’ locations, their passwords and what websites they’ve visited.

A few hours after CNET’s interview with Soltero last week, Google was hit with another lawsuit over its classroom tools. Two children from Illinois sued the search giant for allegedly violating COPPA, as well as Illinois’ biometric privacy law. 

During the interview, Soltero declined to comment on the New Mexico lawsuit. (In a follow-up email, Google also declined comment on the biometric lawsuit.)

But in response to the general criticism, Soltero said, “We stand by our commitment to the privacy of students.” When it comes to privacy controls for students, teachers and parents, he added, “My sense is that we’ve been doing the right set of things all along.”

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