Friday, 29 July 2011

Identity crisis on Google+

Who am I - really?  That is a question that must be in the mind of a lot of people who have been considering using the new 'Google+' but are being put off by stories of account suspensions.  If you haven't heard the stories, try this link, Google+ and pseudonymity: An open letter to Google, for one of the more prominent stories of the week.  It details how a (quite well-known) online personality has had her account suspended by Google because GrrlScientist is apparently not her real name.  Even though it is a pseudonym that she has used for many years, it is deemed unacceptable by Google.

Google+ is clearly aiming to be a direct competitor to Facebook, and let's face it, Facebook needs one!  How often does FB 'helpfully' change features that we have started to think we understand.  FB doesn't have a great reputation when it comes to privacy either.  The default option seems to be to tell everyone everything.  Well I exaggerate a little, but I was amazed when I started using FB (just this year) that I had to spend so much time locking down information that I didn't want to be known to everyone in the world.  (And I was already cautious about what information I had added to it!)

There is a raft of reasons why people use pseudonyms on-line.  I can only give my own reasons here.  I masquerade here on Blogspot as Plasma Engineer, use the same name on, on gmail, and use @plasma_engineer on twitter.  I use another name for a work-related technical web site that I have been running for some years.  I even have a completely anonymous-looking hotmail account to use on sites that I suspect will send me a load of spam.  However I still use the name that my parents have given me on Facebook.  A few of you know all of these names, but I trust that other readers are not offended that I keep these identities separate.  I am not upset if I don't know your personal details, but I always feel honoured if you reveal them to me.  It is not just a matter of trust, it is just that we all have degrees of friendship in our real lives, and the same happens in the online communities that we frequent.

As a professional person, I believe that it is important that my personal opinions are separated from my professional opinions.  I don't kid myself that I am so important that it really matters on the grand scheme of things, but I have a role which requires me to act with authority sometimes.  I don't want my personal views on other topics to affect that role.

Having a pseudonym online means that I can exercise my right to free speech with a little more freedom than I would under my own name.  It is not that I feel concerned from a legal perspective.  After all, Google knows perfectly well who Plasma Engineer really is and the authorities could track me down in an instant, although I do not have an I-phone!  Even if I hadn't associated Plasma's e-mail account with my personal account they could easily enough spot that I typically log in from the same few IP addresses and MAC addresses and associate them.  Before you complain that Google would not do such a thing, remember the saga of the 'accidental' logging of wireless network SSIDs, IP addresses and other information while they were conducting the photographic survey of UK for Google maps.

Let's face it.  Google knows everything about us, like it or not.  It is part of the cost of an online presence.  I like to think of it as a responsibility check in some ways.  I'm not completely comfortable that Google knows so much but it does and its too late to change that.

Identity fraud is another area of concern for all of us.  We are constantly warned about it and still we hear stories about how identities and cash are stolen from the wary and the unwary alike.

On top of that, to be perfectly honest I'm literally scared of some factions.  I tend to speak out about things that concern me and some of those things are a matter of life and death to their proponents.  Indeed the life and death matters are the ones that I feel we should all know more about - if we have no warning we can't take any action to prevent things happening.  As an recovering christian, I tend to attack Christianity's inconsistencies sometimes.  There are probably fundamentalist christians who would wish me harm.  I also point out the dangers of creeping Islam, and I am certain that there are fundamentalist muslims who would actually wish me dead, and I have had thinly-veiled threats via Twitter - generally from ignorant idiots who seem to have no notion of rationality, truth or human rights.

So, is Google right to implement a rule about the use of real names on Google+.  I really don't know.  I can see why they want to avoid online fraud from accounts based on their servers. My G+ account actually is in my real name.  So is my Facebook account, and the Something Surprising Facebook

One thing I would have liked from Google was a warning when I set up my G+ account.  If they had made it perfectly clear that our accounts had to be in our real legal names rather than with a pseudonym then I would have felt that they had good reason to close some that were not - whether we like it or not.  Just saying to those who have lost their entire Google 'lives' (however temporarily) that it is against the terms of service (TOS) of the Google account is rather lame.  I have re-read the TOS again and find it hard to work out which clause they are invoking anyway.

The reason I think this is lame is a matter of consistency.   Google's fantastic and free blogging service does not seem to apply the same rules - not yet at least!

Of all the blogs that I follow - not many, but surely a representative number - I think only 10% are published under legally recognisable names.  My main concern about Google is that this identity crisis might get extended to Blogspot.  I have put a lot of effort into this blog this year, and loved doing it.  I now have a reasonable following of intelligent readers too.  Will Something Surprising get closed summarily because I would not answer to the name Plasma Engineer in the street, even though I really am an engineer (of sorts) who works with plasma?  If so, Google will save a LOT of server space as most of our blogs will vanish overnight without warning.

I would find that sad.

(Time for a backup I think!)

Later edition:
Reading further, I think the aim of Google's campaign against pseudonyms is to avoid the launch of a lot of 'corporate accounts' for every company, band and blog.  This link is to an article that Google+ Witnesses Traffic Growth Decline.  Funnily enough it neglects to emphasise that subscription is still by invitation only.

1 comment:

Little Miss Joey said...

find it a bit stupid that G+ demands that, if it does so. Will G+ be suspicious of Jane Smith? I think not. Can Jane Smith be a fake name for Marianne Jones? Yes, it can. What will G+ say when poor Jamie Oliver's child Buddy Bear Maurice wants to register an account?? I wonder...