Google's "real name policy" -- or, why you are the product

A few days ago this article, unrelated to my case, was published in Business Week, written by Mathew Ingram, and warrants attention.

Why the Real Name Policy is wrong

The main issue at stake, as far as Google+, is the Real Name policy that Google is still embracing in the face of overwhelming public opposition. According to the transcript Schmidt says, "If you think about it, the Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer or what have you."

I think that's great for people who want to use the name that their parents or orphanage gave them at birth. But the issue has been a point of contention for political dissidents, victims of domestic abuse, and trans-gender people among many others. I don't have much to say on this issue because it seems obvious to me that the policy is wrong and I'm not sure how one would further clarify that fact. A person's identity is created of their own volition. Any statement to the contrary would be easily categorized as oppression. If Skud's real name is Mary Jane Goodwife (which I just made up) but she wants to be called Skud, what business is it of a corporation to tell people to call her Mary Jane?

Identity as a way of trust: Eric Schmidt defends the policy

Eric Schmidt says in defense of the Real Name policy:

If we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them...we could, you know, bill them.

This would only make sense if Google were to force all users to provide proof of identity. As it is, they are currently only banning users with obviously false names. I don’t need Google to tell me that Skud wasn’t born with the name Skud. The value of a Real Name policy could only be realized if you were to challenge each user to provide proof of their identity. Challenging obvious pseudonyms achieves nothing, it’s the John Smiths that need to provide proof that they are who they say. Is this statement to imply that Google intends to request all users to confirm their identity? (According to Forbes the answer is yes.)


...people have a lot of free time and people on the Internet, there are people who do really really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out. I’m not suggesting eliminating them, what I’m suggesting is if we knew their identity was accurate, we could rank them.

I’m not sure I see how the process of ranking people itself does anything to mitigate the “evil” things they are doing online.

And continuing:

...the Internet came out of universities where the issue of authentication wasn’t such a big issue. Everybody trusted everybody, you didn’t have these kinds of things.

The first two comments are disturbing for obvious reasons of leading down an Orwellian path. This last comment though reminds me of the type of person who says they don't "trust" Wikipedia. My problem isn't with their lack of trust in a user powered encyclopaedia, my problem is that they seem to think that they are expected to trust Wikipedia, or that I and all the other people who use it place our trust in Wikipedia. The problem here is the person who doesn't understand why encyclopaedias list sources.

I would say to Eric Schmidt that the best thing about the Internet, and about Google, is that you don't have to blindly trust anything anymore. I have never spoken so much as a word to Skud online or otherwise, but I would trust it to be true if she told me something. And I would also find out for myself whether or not it was true. The two concepts don't need to exist independently of each other. Wikipedia is great now for the same reason it has always been great: because the sources of each statement are included. And if they're not included, you can find out for yourself whether or not an assertion is true and base your trust on your own research.

Real identity is not maturity

I’m fairly confident that one of the main goals Google has with its social network platform is longevity. And I think that with their Real Name policy they are, in addition to consolidating your online identity, hoping to maintain an atmosphere of maturity. They’re hoping to avoid the prattle of anonymous Facebook and Myspace users. But instead of looking for ways to compete with those two dying networks while filtering out the spam, Google should be looking at Twitter. Users can call themselves whatever they want on twitter. I personally receive several spam messages a week on Twitter, and I don’t mind it in the least. Utilizing a network that is free and open far outweighs the annoyance of not knowing whether or not I can “trust” what a user says. The chaos of Twitter is the default of all open social networks. Google is making a fatal error in pandering to their laziest and most naïve users by claiming a Real Name policy protects them from “really, really evil” people.

This idea that you can't trust someone because they're not adhering to the rules used by a third party in order to define their identity is a dangerous idea. It hypothetically precludes putting your trust in someone that a corporation, in this case Google, has refused to positively identify; it also makes people more reliant on the concept that there ever exists one single source of information that can be trusted, which has never and will never be the case in any situation.

Don't worry about the dissidents

Regarding the enforcement of Google's Real Name policy in Syria and Iran, Schmidt goes on to say:

There, there’s no assumption of privacy, everyone assumes that the Internet is bugged and that the secret police are after them. So their sensibilities are extremely different.

So it's OK to further erode the privacy of citizens living in a totalitarian state where "the secret police are after them" because they are already living in an oppressive country and they're used to it...?

So would it then be OK to continue to outlaw anonymity should an open society such as our own devolve into a society regulated by "secret police"?

I think Eric Schmidt is probably a brilliant man, a great CEO, and technologically innovative. And maybe he does have good intentions, and only needs to choose his words more carefully, but this should not even be an issue that he's working on. There's no reason why someone working in a field as highly specialized as software development should be making decisions in the field of journalism or politics or, most importantly, identity. These are decisions which affect human beings utilizing the largest communication platform to ever exist. One which has been shown to be highly effective in political and social revolution. These are decisions which affect human beings who are living under brutal regimes all over the world. Neither a software developer nor a CEO should ever feel they are able to tackle these issues without the proper understanding of political and social complexities; an understanding which he has, I think, sufficiently demonstrated to be lacking.

Welcome to Google Banking?

I've explained a lot of my own thoughts regarding online identity ownership in the past few weeks to a few magazines and bloggers, but Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s comments to NPR reporter Andy Carvin the other day seemed worth pointing out. The Ingram article speculates that Google wants to be a bank. My response to that is: who the hell doesn’t want to be a bank? So I’m inclined to agree with the speculation, even without taking into account the glaringly obvious NFC product named Wallet that Google is currently prepping, which could understandably be seen as a step in the financial direction. So I can’t imagine this would really come as a surprise to anyone if it were true, I for one took it for granted.

It's not that it's free. It's that you are the product being sold

As Google says in their own words, to their investors:

Who are our customers? Our customers are over one million advertisers, from small businesses targeting local customers to many of the world's largest global enterprises, who use Google AdWords to reach millions of users around the world.

And as Mathew Ingram sums up in his article:

As the saying goes: If you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product being sold.

I’m unaware of any company that feels responsible to their product. And if I’m to understand that they’re responsible to their customers, the advertisers, I don’t want “the world’s largest global enterprises” dictating my identity or choosing who in Syria is granted a voice on the world stage. This affects everyone, whether you use social networking sites or not, because it affects the people who do, and if their freedoms are allowed to be compromised it is a human being's freedom being compromised, not an avatar’s. And it is of paramount importance that a citizen living in an oppressive country feels comfortable expressing themselves to the world community freely and completely and without fear of reprisal. Even more so if “the secret police” are currently inhibiting the other existing channels of communication.

_Editor's note: you can read the original version of this entry in ThomasMonopoly's blog: REGARDING GOOGLE CEO ERIC SCHMIDT'S REAL NAME POLICY COMMENTS TO NPR


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.