Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moles And Trolls Or Why I Dislike Google's Real Names Push

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 16:  Eric Schmidt, ...
I'd been on the fence about Google's "Real Names" push on Google Plus since it's inception awhile back. There are pros and cons to both sides of the debate and I didn't find myself tipping strongly in either direction until now.

The title of this entry acknowledges that there are two kinds of anonymous posters.  Moles are people who hide their identity out of fear for their safety due to the opinions and beliefs they are expressing. Trolls hide their identity because they want to be jerks without consequences. They can be entertaining in a sick "look at this idiot" kind of way but they don't have any redeeming characteristics. Sadly to protect the first group you have to protect the second as well. I seriously doubt though that these two groups are Google's primary concern.

One of Google's central tenants is in theory "Don't be evil". Evil can come not only from action, but from inaction as well. I will suggest here that their real names push is in fact evil as currently constituted.

This wasn't actually clear to me until Google chairman Eric Schmidt made his "Don't like it, don't use it" statement. His point is basically valid, G+ is in fact optional. Then again so are Facebook and twitter and look at the number of times they've been used and cited in relation to helping coordinate and instigate profound changes in various countries. The ability for people to get on Twitter anonymously and discuss and coordinate has been used for much good and a bit of evil as well in the case of the London riots. Social networking has to be profitable for the companies creating products and services but these services are also providing important avenues for dissidents to be heard and encourage change. Some are willing to do this publicly and others are not. The fact that the first group are not infrequently beaten, tortured and killed explains the second group. Google is essentially saying "If you wan to use our service to promote change, you're going to have to do it in a very public way that might get you killed". That seems kind of evil to me, particularly when we explore the motivations for this approach.

As I've pointed out before, Google has  income already on G+ because of the information they can gather about us based on how we arrange our circles and who we choose to communicate our posts to. The value of those interactions goes up if Google knows more about the people on both ends of the transaction. This is in part why real names are so important to them.

The other reason they are important is that Google wants to build additional services on top of G+ that require verified identities. What Google is failing to acknowledge though is that there will inevitably be differing levels of verified. For instance, right now you don't have to have a credit card registered with Google to be on G+. Many of us do though since with have Android phones and buy stuff from the Android market place. That level of verification is clearly higher than "It looks like a real name and they've been around for awhile" or whatever minimal criteria Google is using right now. I can envision higher levels of verification that involve official ID's being presented, DNA testing, etc. I'm assuming of course that Google's next step will not be to require a credit card to use G+.

I can also envision a very low level of verification that is essentially no verification at all. This is where the anonymous types could and should exist. Clearly they wouldn't have access to many of the neat additional services that Google and their partners will build on top of G+, but that's OK.

For those worried about criminals using such this capability I'll point out that anonymity online only has a limited scope. Your online identity may not be obviously linked to you from a public perspective but there are all sorts of bread crumbs that companies save including IP addresses and email addresses that can be used in many cases to track down the real person if that becomes necessary. Technically sophisticated people can greatly reduce the odds of being tracked down but there is risk to them even in that case.

Of course verified identities or real names are only one half of the equation. Identity theft is relatively easy and common in both the real and electronic world right now. To do this right Google will need to provide some kind of token or smart card  technology to give a reasonable level of assurance that the person who is logged in to G+ is in fact who they claim to be. If this sounds complicated, well it is. A lot of this complexity could actually be hidden from the general public but in one form or another any identity service worth a dang is going to have to have gradated levels of identity and verification.

Currently Twitter provides an outlet for concise anonymous messaging. Google+ has the potential to allow for much richer communications in this arena since it doesn't have a 140 character limit. It may be over stating the case a bit to call Google evil for not allowing these communications but when you throw in the fact that their motivation for this move seems to be solely to support an overly simplistic business model the word evil becomes a bit more credible in my mind.

I'm not anti business. I realize that Google is a publicly traded company with tens of thousands of employees. Given their "Don't be Evil" philosophy though there are certain lines that they should in theory be reluctant to cross. This is one of them. They can in fact be an identity service without disallowing anonymous users. If they want to be a good identity service they'll need to account for varying levels of verification and authentication anyway.

Image by Getty Images via @daylife
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