Yesterday, the EFF reported on comments that Vic Gundotra made at the Web 2.0 Summit.  I call BS on the EFF report.  Click here for the full video of his interview, along with Sergey Brin.

The EFF Report

The EFF report was christened with an attention-seeking headline: “Victory! Google Surrenders in the Nymwars“.

The article begins by saying “Proponents of pseudonymity scored a major victory today, when Google executive Vic Gundotra revealed at the Web 2.0 Summit that social networking service Google+ will begin supporting pseudonyms and other types of identity.”

However, it’s unclear what changes Gundotra’s comments referred to, and I believe the EFF is either jumping to conclusions, or intentionally trying to apply pressure to Google by pigeonholing the decision makers there into providing something that the EFF would consider a victory.

In contrast to the aggressive and crystal-clear headline, the EFF report ends with an almost complete flipflop — a much more watered down “hopeful” comment: “Though it is not yet clear what those features will look like, we are cautiously optimistic that Google+ will do the right thing to ensure that all of its users feel free to express themselves on the site.”

Mashable’s Reports

Furthermore, the EFF report is based on an article on Mashable, with a much calmer and accurate title “Google+ to Support Pseudonyms”.

Like the EFF article, it also ends with a cautionary note: “Gundotra didn’t go further into how Google+ will support pseudonyms.”

I say that both the EFF and Mashable articles are wishful thinking.  Here’s why, in Mashable’s own words: “Why Google+ will never back down on real names”.

What Was Actually Said

The question regarding pseudonyms was: “Eric (Schmidt, CEO), in the press, defended that as ‘We are an identity company, and therefore we want to have the right identity.’ Will you reconsider that?”

Gundotra replied: “We plan to support pseudonyms… in the future… we’re working on it.  So it’s coming.” “It was largely an issue of development priorities.  It’s complicated… to get this right.”  “It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to support… uh uh… other forms of identity… it’s coming… it’s just that this is the way we wanted to roll out the service; this is the atmosphere we wanted to set” … “we’ll add these features.”

I Call BS

I call BS on the EFF article.  First, this is old news.  Gundotra is just reiterating what he said months ago.

Months ago, during the closed beta, when I had a Google+ account, I begged for them to add support for a separate per-circle identity — a kind of per-circle display name — so that Google could know my wallet name, but other users in different circles would know me by my online name, or possibly different online names.  Then just as I was deleting my Google+ account, Gundotra claimed that Google would be adding support for this, but it was a significant development undertaking and it would take time.  The impression I got from his comments was that it would take 6-12 months, and that in the meantime, the policy stands: Google+ identities would be required to be wallet names.  Even once this work was complete, the Google account itself would represent a wallet name person, not an online identity.  To understand why, again see that Mashable article.

But such a promise is not enough for me.  After further thought, I decided that I used an online identity for a reason, and I did not want anyone, certainly not Google, especially not through my own direct application to them, to be able to connect my online identity with my offline (wallet) name.

When Google+ allows me to create a pseudonym-based Google profile, and use that as my Google+ account, then I will claim victory in the Nymwars.  However, that would be a much smaller technical change than what Gundotra claims was required here.  Until I see that, my belief is that they are doing what I originally suggested; they are adding support for one or more “pseudonyms to be supported” under an account based on a wallet name (only).

The Place For Optimism

From my perspective, the most positive comment was not the one regarding pseudonyms, but rather the question near the end, when a man from the audience asked about allowing Google Apps user accounts to have access to Google+.  Gundotra claimed that the only reason this was not available was due to the “large body of technical work to enable Google+ to work with Google Apps”.  In the long run, if Google wants to see continued growth of Google+, they will need to pull in the millions of existing accounts in use by other Google services.  To limit Google+ use to new Google+ specific accounts is to sign the Google+ death warrant.  So this begs the question: will they just do the technical work to let those millions of accounts in, with pseudonyms? Or will they also update the usage policies on those accounts to force a similar real-name policy?  My personal bet is that they will eventually open Google+ to all Google accounts, including pseudonyms.  Otherwise, we will all watch Google+ die a slow horrible death.

Other Notable Moments

There were some interesting quotes in that video interview, as well as some funny awkward moments.  Here are some quotes from Vic Gundotra:

Questioned about Facebook and the challenge: “The incumbent has a huge advantage.  And if you play the same game, that’s a hard game to win.”

Regarding a misguided interpretation of online identity: “It turns out that your friends, your mother, your cousin, they’re already on Google.  They use it all the time.  We’ve never given them a reason to express their identity and their relationships.  And we’re going to do that.”  Apparently he believes that your cousin isn’t using an online identity, but a wallet ID.  And yet: “We do not believe in oversharing. We have a different philosophy.”

There were some funny moments too:

“I’ve been with Google for approaching five years.”  Q: “Where were you before that?” A: “I used to work… with Steve… at Microsoft.” (laughter) “Wow. That was hard to get out.” (laughter) “Um…” (more laughter)

My favorite line however was this one: “There is a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth.” (laughter)