Google+ and the Huge Privacy Disappointment
I was so looking forward to Google+, given the reports that it would be a better Facebook, the service that was more privacy-aware.
Privacy and Google Policy
Google’s own Public Policy Blog here reports the following:
So, we’ve been thinking about the different ways people choose to identify themselves (or not) when they’re using Google–in particular how identification can be helpful or even necessary for certain services, while optional or unnecessary for others. Attribution can be very important, but pseudonyms and anonymity are also an established part of many cultures — for good reason.
Pseudonymous. Using a pseudonym has been one of the great benefits of the Internet, because it has enabled people to express themselves freely—they may be in physical danger, looking for help, or have a condition they don’t want people to know about. People in these circumstances may need a consistent identity, but one that is not linked to their offline self. You can use pseudonyms to upload videos in YouTube or post to Blogger.
In both quotes above, the highlighting is mine. But clearly, someone at Google “gets it”.
If you read the comments that follow, there is a long list of positive feedback of people acknowledging the very positive, proactive and practical approach and benefits of this kind of policy that Google has revealed.
However, in the case of Google+, it seems that this privacy-centric thinking was not a general policy, but specific marketingspeak for the “Circles” feature, and that in fact Google is violating their own content policy, linked to in the account suspension messages, that claims they want you to use the name by which you are known in your daily communications. If you do that, you will be suspended.
An example of a suspension message can be found here:
Quickly we learn that all the positive comments in the Google Public Policy Blog do not apply to their newest and largest social product, Google+:
Google Profiles is a product that works best in the identified state. This way you can be certain you’re connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they’re checking out.
Oh oh. So much for an online business presence. So much for those users who are concerned about privacy and personal security. So much for online presences who follow best practices for Internet security.
But then this becomes ambiguous and inconsistent because it’s followed by the following presumptuous comment:
For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.
What name would a business go by? And does this not mean that well-known Internet, publishing, or celebrity identities should be used? Apparently not, or not consistently.
I’ve seen several attempts to discuss the two classes of names, such as “real” vs. “fake” names, “pseudonyms” (“nyms”) and “avatar names” vs. “wallet names”, etc. To me none of those apply. None is more or less real or fact or pseudo or avatar. I think of my two names as my online name, and my offline name. If I need something delivered to my door in the physical world, I use my offline name. If I am pulled over by police, of course I provide my driver’s license with my offline name. If I am signing up for a web blog, email, social network or other online service, it will always be “Jim Tarber” for the name, and a user ID based on that.
Why? So that those who know me in my daily life can find me. They don’t know me by my offline name. When I am requested to identify myself online, I tend to use my online name. Funny how that works, eh? You would think the giant of online services, Google, would be able to understand this.
I go by “Jim Tarber”, which is the name I chose to use for all my online activities, because it made sense for me given that I wanted the freedom to express my opinions online without worrying about what my employer thought of this, or what my real-world friends and family thought of this. It is the name I am known by in all my online dealings. While the most reasonable choice for Google, I doubt that is what Google had in mind when they claimed I should “use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.”
Why Use A Different Name Online?
Am I hiding? Yes, most definitely. I consider my personal information to be… well, personal. I will volunteer it to those who have some kind of need to know it.
Is this in any way a bad thing, a malicious thing, or a nefarious plot against others? Absolutely not. It is a “best practice”, and highly recommended. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has the following to say:
Many people don’t want the things they say online to be connected with their offline identities. They may be concerned about political or economic retribution, harassment, or even threats to their lives. Whistleblowers report news that companies and governments would prefer to suppress; human rights workers struggle against repressive governments; parents try to create a safe way for children to explore; victims of domestic violence attempt to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow.
Instead of using their true names to communicate, these people choose to speak using pseudonyms (assumed names) or anonymously (no name at all). For these individuals and the organizations that support them, secure anonymity is critical. It may literally save lives.
Actually they have a lot more to say about it. Follow that link for the more info.
Google+ Is Unreliable, by Policy
My primary emotion at this point is one of huge disappointment, being let down by what looked like a technically superior alternative to the privacy-hostile Facebook, due to corporate policy ruining what could have been an massively good thing. It had such potential and looked so good; this only makes the disappointment more intense.
It may be too late to save this now. It is a PR disaster among those who “get” privacy. Perhaps if they reversed the policy against online identity (for their online identities), and promised to consult and respond to feedback in the future, it may be saved.
But I’ve been on the edge of just deleting my account and abandoning Google services for the last few days. I can’t quite pull the plug because I have a new Android tablet, and it just works better with a Google identity of some kind.
So I guess I’ll just not use the Google services for social interaction. I’ve never had any trouble at all on Twitter, and the possibility that my Google+ account could be suspended because I happen to have online personalities in my G+ circles means that I cannot depend on Google service. If Google+ has this cloud hanging over it, I must consider it unreliable.
And if my account is suspended, I will not appeal. I will just leave.
That’s what Google wants, because I am not “real”. My followers and friends are not real (even the real ones like Laurence Simon, who had his account suspended (later reinstated), presumably because Google assumed that was an online identity, not an offline one, since “guilt” by association seems to rule there). The highly-focused advertizing they could hit me with apparently doesn’t count either. The fact that I am validated through SMS to my cell phone may also not make me “real”. The fact that I’d like to enter my credit card information and make purchases without logging out of my Google online account should also count for something, but doesn’t. I need to use my offline identity when performing transactions online. I have no problem with Google filling my offline/credit identity into forms for me, when that is needed. I just don’t want the general public to be given any of this personal information, including my offline name.
I have no problem authenticating to Google. Well I do, but I’m willing to ignore that and do it anyway. What I do have a problem with is sharing that authentication with other readers, and the whole Internet community, in violation of privacy and security best practices, as well as common sense.