The status of pseudonymity and privacy on Google+

Here’s a separate thread for people most interested in keeping track of official, semi- and unofficial pronouncements about pseudonymity and/or privacy on Google+ in particular, in addition to the more general discussions taking place at Anti-pseudonym bingo and Social networking requirements. You can also discuss your feelings and reaction to various announcements here. warped-ellipsis, you can re-post your existing links in this thread if you like.

If you’re linking to a blog or Google+ discussion, please also include a summary or excerpt that explains why you’re linking to it. Is it a user test showing such-and-such a property of Google+? Is it a statement by Google or an employee? Is it a change or a clarification? That sort of thing. (No linking/quoting anything from G+ that isn’t marked “Public” please.)

Note: yes, Google+ is in beta/early launch/testing/something, and they’re actively seeking feedback. Please no nagging to people to send in their comments here as feedback, since they now know this for sure and presumably they have or will send it in if they want to, and if they haven’t they presumably have their reasons.

52 thoughts on “The status of pseudonymity and privacy on Google+

  1. Alan Bell

    This is an interesting one I saw this morning

    A woman who happened to be a Google product manager (that really isn’t very relevant, except she might have wider circles than she would otherwise have) had a comment on a post which sounded inappropriate (it wasn’t that bad, just a friend being cheeky) and someone else called it out and said it was highly inappropriate.

    “Would this have happened in a place that didn’t try to encourage people to interact like they would if they were talking face to face? In place that didn’t associate people’s names with what they said? Who knows. All I do know is there was clearly a sense of “this is a place where civility manners” because others were willing to speak up and make it a place where I could be comfortable being me. “

  2. Mary Post author

    Some links from within G+:

    Danny O’Brien notes that Chinese journalist Michael Anti has joined Google+ under his (name-like) writing pseudonym. (1st July.)

    Fox Magrathea Circe explains how + tagging someone in your comment makes the whole discussion visible to them (8th July) (see also Strata Chalup’s take on this and Danny O’Brien’s long comment in reply).

    Randall Munroe protests against the requirement for a public gender field (8th July), ‘ware his dislike of “recent” pronouns and transphobic comments from others. (Also Danny O’Brien and Jessica Polito.)

    Blog entries:

    Jillian C. York on Community Standards: A Comparison of Facebook vs. Google+, treated pseudonymity. Note that this post is dated 30th June, so before it was known that, eg, Ken Wehr can’t go by his initials, and that Jillian is a pseudonymity sceptic in some cases).

    Danny O’Brien on Google+ for journalists at risk (also prior to Ken Wehr’s warning).

  3. Alan Bell is interesting, it shows 11.4% women on the site to date, will be interesting to see how that changes over time. The top 10 most followed people are all men (with the possible exception of Mashable News) but #11 and 12 are women.
    The detailed page for a person e.g.
    includes the revealing statement:
    “Why don’t you install the Google+ Statistics Widget on your blog or website?
    It will promote your Google+ account and get you more followers, influence and sex-appeal.”

    1. warped-ellipsis

      Somebody’s watching, it looks like that quote was changed since your comment was posted: “It will promote your Google+ account and get you more followers, influence and awesomeness.”

  4. mercredigirl

    I am rather annoyed that Google+ insists on the following:

    Use your full first and last name in a single language.
    If you use your full name, you’ll help people find you online and connect with the right person. If you’re referred to by more than one name, just choose one and place the others in the “Other names” section of your profile.

    1. pianycist

      I guess this means I should list my birth name on my profile so that all the cissexist people I’ve ever met from before transition can find me and harass me. Great idea, Google! -_-

  5. jon

    Here’s a comment from a Google product manager saying we are not currently taking down profiles with profile pictures of non-people unless they otherwise violate our community standards, but also noting “Google+ is committed to helping people connect with people they know and to feel safe sharing and communicating. We believe using real names and real profile pictures is the best way to create that kind of environment.” Gah. In response, I changed my profile to something non-representational. But I mean really …

    Jillian York also has a good post on Google+ and “Real Names”. Jillian’s at EFF, but both of these posts are on her personal blog.

  6. andrewsomething

    > (No linking/quoting anything from G+ that isn’t marked “Public” please.)

    I’ve yet to get a Google+ invite, so could someone clarify this for me? Are you suggesting that even threads that are private can be publicly shared by one party in the conversation giving out a link?

    1. Mary Post author

      I doubt they can be linked (that’s a “just in case”, they have made some rather unintuitive decisions about what “Limited” means), but quoted is a matter of copy and paste.

    2. Dorothea

      As I understand it, if I share something only with a circle that you’re in, by default you may in turn reshare it with any of your circles, which may well include people not in any of my circles.

      This can be turned off per-post (though only AFTER the post has been posted, so there’s always a loophole even if it’s only seconds long).

      IMO this is a mistake. A good social network works to minimize nasty surprises and malice. Some circles should default to resharing-off (“Friends” assuredly should), and this default should always be an option for any circle. Per-post resharing should be toggle-able while writing a post, not just after.

  7. Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

    Hey Alan, I wrote that line on Social Statistics (and every other line of text and code on there) and just wanted to say that the sex-appeal joke was gender neutral when I wrote it. But as it might confuse or insult some people I have decided to change it.

    1. Dorothea

      “Gender-neutral” is not the only criterion here. “Not dragging sex where it doesn’t necessarily belong” matters as well; this is particularly important to women, who often find themselves sexualized against their will.

      Thank you for removing the joke.

    2. Alan Bell

      Thanks, I could see it was a joke, and it didn’t offend me, it just looked a bit out of place.
      And thanks for the awesome site, I love statistics :)

    3. Alan Bell

      Boris, are you tracking the change in the overall % female over time? I would love to see how that changes from the very beginning over the first year.

  8. warped-ellipsis

    I don’t know if OObscure only hit the first level of appeals or the second, I couldn’t find anything on which level he’s at. I do know that there’s Googlers who are pro-handle, I’ve run into a bunch of them on GP; the issue is, there’s also the marketers they’re up against and people who don’t know any of these things. If anything, it’s the het gamer males who would want to use the handles, it’s the rest of the company that’s unfamiliar with them that’s “not getting it” which is the problem. They’re listening to feedback though, and other cases of suspensions have been overturned. I think part of the problem is that Google doesn’t have any standard policy for vetting a handle–which, again, this is all new to them, field trial looking for feedback, etc. They’ve implemented a bunch of other things as well, this may be further in the pipeline. A post from a bunch of Googlers, on flying under the radar with handles:

    It seems like they’re culling it now because they need “real” feedback, and server space is limited (the influx of valid people overwhelmed what resources they had dedicated to it); once the network goes live it seems safe to assume that you can go by whatever you want.

    They are watching. The Bingo post actually made it in with the note, “please send feedback if these are issues you care about,” as well as apparently changing the Stats page per my other comment.

  9. warped-ellipsis

    Pre-apology for the wall of text, I didn’t want to spam the thread with a bunch of separate posts.
    +1 for removing the wrong context sex joke; if anyone wants to know why that may be upsetting, have a look at that link, and then follow up with this.

    Non-public threads can’t ever go public, as I understand it. A person can post publicly, or to limited people. If it’s public, the entire web can see it; if it’s limited, it’s to whomever it was posted to–be it 6k people or one. Things can also have their “share”-ability disabled; as the author you always have the option of disabling reshares entirely on a given post, “Just click the triangle menu at the top right of your post, and select “Disable reshare.””

    While people are never told which circle they are in, you can always see who’s in on a limited post by clicking the “limited” tag on the post; this is to prevent people from trash-talking someone only to find out that person was there all along. As of right now, people can be “+’ed” (invited) into a post without the OP’s knowledge; it’s been suggested that the OP should get moderator abilities on such invites sent to people outside the original audience. I think it would also be a good idea to have banishment privileges on people within a post, so that trolls can be removed–I don’t know how this would work on a public thread, but in a limited thread it would be as if they had been blocked from it (maybe the troll’s comments could be preserved, maybe not).

    Ginormous GP how-to, written by the users (probably Googlers. Not sure how up-to-date things are kept; I’d imagine it’s fairly accurate).

    Various other thoughts related to pseudonyms:
    How should a fully pseudonymous account be vouched for, ie how is it proven that it’s a “known name”? Links to past posts? Links to others who would vouch that it’s real? Some kind of adaptable guideline should be put in place, so that it cuts down on necessary appeals and engineer’s time since all the vouching would already be done for them. Perhaps the person could vouch to Google with their real ID in the appeal process, and then get themselves a fully psuedonymous account; however, that raises the problem of having associated their handle with their real ID.

    As said previously, Google currently requires ties to a “real identity”, such as the text message activation, which may prove a problem if that tie is found out. I’m not sure how much information a person would need to be able to tie a handle to a real person…even one tenuous link is enough to turn people off–say if they have stalkers, or are trans and don’t want their contacts knowing that they’re going to transition, whether that transition involves surgery or not. The latter group needs to live as their gender for some period of time before the law allows them to legally change it. There’s plenty of other reasons a person would want to use a handle that have been mentioned on various threads here.

    What if someone wants to set up a new handle with Google, on the idea that they’re probably the most secure company to have an account with–would that be turned down, because it has no history? Activists, people who can’t/don’t admit to being atheist or queer or trans but need the contact provided by internet support, or simply don’t want their online activity to follow them home: talking about anything online–even simply being visibly female, as shown by one’s name–can bring on legions of people who threaten fully real violence, be that hacking accounts or physical damage.

    There’s plenty of communities that operate on only handles with very few problems from users. Not to mention, “looks fake” is a bit vague….anyone with a phone could register a fake account with “John Smith” on it and then put their own handle under that name. Another user wrote an excellent post on the privileges of real-name use, and its problems for other people. As stated in the comments there, Google seems to be having an internal battle over this and a bunch of other things.

    Side note: If you want to follow the Googlers posting about things on GP, it appears that you can RSS subscribe to public posts from GP profiles, at least with Google Reader. In Reader, go to Settings>Goodies, at the bottom of the page there’s a “Subscribe as you surf” section with a bookmarkable link to drag to your bar. Click that (or perhaps any other such button provided by your browser or another reader). As far as I know, I don’t think there’s an RSS button yet to just click on people’s profiles.

    1. warped-ellipsis

      I don’t think any of these privacy features are “little known”; they are actually much easier to find, use and adjust than those on FB. Compared to FB’s years in the game: FB’s controls are scattered among several pages and hidden behind several sublinks and submenus even after you find the pages. GP, on the other hand, has everything clickable right on your profile, on the post itself, or on a single page of settings. GP also has defaulted HTTPS, whereas FB has only attempted that recently, has the option buried and default off. FB makes it a difficult hassle to control your info, not to mention the constant changes to privacy settings and resets to all-is-public defaults; GP makes it easy and intuitive.

      As for why circles are default public now, it’s because GP is encouraging people to link up with others Twitter-style, and to find friends you didn’t know had a GP account.

  10. Skud

    Comments from Natalie Villalobos, community manager for Google+: (scroll down/search for her name)

    She says:

    You do not need to use your last name or even your “real name” but a name that you are commonly known by. You can put “Natalie V” with no symbol, as we no longer support symbols in the names fields. Here’s what I have posted in public forums to help people bring their accounts out of suspension:

    We’ve seen some complaints regarding profile suspensions, and I want to let you know how to solve this problem. Typically this problem occurs when you edit your name in a way that we no longer accept. In these situations, you may find that your name requires review to confirm that it complies with our Community Standards:

    1) You’ll be prompted to request a review during the sign-up flow, this will lead to it being reviewed by our team.

    2) After 24 hours, your profile will either be live or require further appeal.

    3) To request further appeal, click on the link to our appeal form from your Google Profile. Here, you can provide additional information to support the claim that you are using a name in compliance with our policy.

    4) Once you file the second appeal your profile will be handled via 1-to-1 communication with Google.

    Here is some helpful content to look over in regards to this policy:

  11. Skud

    A couple of examples of account suspensions:

    Rowan Thunder suspended, supposedly confirmed by Liz Fong at Google.

    Tobias Wimbauer, a German user, was suspended. (Post is in German.)

    Anon Aviatrix, a blogger concerned with privacy, signed up using a pseud and a false birthdate. The account was locked for being under-18, but then AA had trouble validating her birthdate via legal ID as no ID showed her pseud. She was able to reinstate her acct using credit card authentication instead.

    1. Skud

      More on Rowan Thunder on John Hardy’s post here:

      Comments on that post also suggest that Ariana Huffington’s account was suspended though I don’t have any other details on that other than Christopher Rizzo’s comment: “They got Ariana Huffington also. She even tweeted from her verified twitter that it was her account.”

  12. Skud

    Discussion of legal status of pseudonyms in the United States. They claim:

    Since persons who choose to use Google services, including Google+, under their Avatar Identities, which constitutes a Pseudonym and is thus protected and federally sanctioned within the United States as having the same legal weight as a court-decreed name change, any T.O.S. enacted by Google is an agreement with a legally standing Pseudonym and carries the same weight to legally be both acceptable and binding as the “true” name of the person involved.

    In removing Virtual Environment identities from the Google+ service under “breach of TOS”, Google as a company is likely breaking federal law in the United States. This also goes for Facebook, since any “legally binding” T.O.S. entered into agreement by an Avatar Identity holds the same weight legally as a Pseudonym and therefore that of using a real name as long as the intent to defraud does not exist.

    1. Mary Post author

      My (limited) knowledge suggests the legal status of pseudonyms/name changes is more or less the same across all the “common law” countries: as long as there’s no intention to defraud you can name yourself anything you can convince other people to use. That use by other people makes it your name. (It seems to be your job to convince banks and the government to call you that though, hence the existence of formal name change mechanisms. But the status of birth certificates and name change deeds both seem actually to be something like “I promise to go by this name/have my child go by this and thereby make this a name”, strictly, rather than in themselves effecting the name.)

      Whether the law in any of those countries requires that a privately owned venue allow each individual their legal right to go by any name, I don’t personally know.

    2. Glenn Willen

      Unfortunately, I do not see any evidence that this individual has any idea what they are talking about. :-

    1. Skud

      To be clear… the article about the legality of pseudonyms is not my post, it’s just a link and a quote to something soemone else posted.

  13. Leigh Honeywell

    My partner has a digit in his legal name, and had his account suspended a couple days ago. He’s wrangling with them about getting it fixed, but what a pain :/

    1. Dorothea

      Cripes. It’s almost as though they WANT another Buzzlike disaster.

      Microsoft has the sense to hire sociologists. Don’t tell me Google can’t afford it.

    1. Rowan Thunder

      Thankfully my FB profile seemed to be enough to verify my use.
      And yes, I did have Liz Fong and t tuttle at google comment for me while I was suspended, they’re two of the only people on G+ that I have contact with, as well as my significant other commented relayed for me when he could, after sharing a link to my website and garnering some activity on his own profile. I wanted to make sure I stayed involved even though I couldn’t comment, and was lucky enough to have people who patiently waited for me to compose responses.

      I even actually got an apology when my account was reinstated, which was good, because I damn well expected one:

  14. Mary Post author

    Submitted by someone else:

    YSK that Google+ silently censors the “7 dirty words” from streams: Posts with any of the Seven Dirty Words will not show up on your or your friend’s stream. It’ll be visible on your profile to anyone who browses there, but will be blocked from the “streams” pages. This means that someone has to be browsing your profile directly to see the post. Noone in your shared circles will know it’s there otherwise. As of yet, there’s no preference for choosing to view such censored content.

    Google Deleting Private Profiles by July 31: Taking another page from Facebook, Google this week announced that it will no longer support private Google Profiles after July 31…

    Any profiles that remain private after July 31 will be deleted, Google said. At this point, however, the search giant said “nearly all” profiles are public. The only information you must reveal in a public profile is full name and gender; “you’ll be able to edit or remove any other information that you don’t want to share,” Google said.

    1. Dorothea

      And Google doesn’t see how that’s evil.

      I just want to mutter “tools of the kyriarchy” until they go away. Or learn. Either way.

  15. jon

    Google’s Frances Haugen: “I’m proud to announce Google+ Profiles is launching a new privacy enhancement in response to user feedback. Starting later this week, you will be able to set the privacy setting of your gender on your Google+ Profile just as you control other information about yourself. :-)”. Kudos to them for listening.

    Lauren Weinstein’s Google+’s “Identity” Controversy: No Easy Answers is a good read, including this quote from somebody he talked to at Google:

    Another related issue has been concerns about the use of non-anonymous identities by persons dealing with sensitive situations such as alternative lifestyles or oppressive governmental regimes.

    Addressing specifically the latter point, Google says that — at this time — they do not consider Google+ to be an appropriate discussion platform for persons in situations where not being anonymous might put them at risk of harm.

    1. Ingrid Jakobsen

      persons in situations where not being anonymous might put them at risk of harm.

      Have Google even heard of Kathy Sierra?

      Just being online with a female name can put someone at risk of harm; more so if, per Rebecca West, online with a female name and expressing opinions that distinguish her from a doormat.

    2. Dorothea

      Well. That settles it, then. I’m disabling Google Plus. Won’t re-enable until Google locates a clue and some compassion.

    1. jon

      … which has now been updated to clarify that he was talking about business profiles or other profiles that aren’t intended to represent an individual.

  16. Mary Post author

    Most people have probably seen that Skud’s own account was suspended:
    I’ve been suspended from Google+
    More comments on Google+ and names

    Current Google employee Ka-Ping Yee‘s account (who was using the name “Ping”) was suspended too:
    My Google+ profile has just been suspended for having an unusual name.

    The discussion here is dying down: if people are interested in continuing discussion and updates, one possibility is the community on DW.

    1. Dorothea

      I was wondering when Google Plus’s skewed, stupid policies would harm one of Google’s own employees. That didn’t take long.

      (To be clear, I’m not exulting. Rolling my eyes at G+, if anything. This was inevitable.)

  17. Mary Post author

    The Thomas Monopoly account, which was being cited as a possible example of someone suspended from every Google service for using a pseudonym, appears to have actually been suspended because it was falsely flagged as having child pornography material.

    Source: Lauren Weinstein, Liz Fong, Thomas Monopoly. (None of these have pornographic images shown on the pages, Thomas Monopoly links to some adult pornography in order to explain what he was actually doing with his Google account.)

    Note: like Liz Fong I’d probably rather that a child pornography discussion not start up here, whether technical or morality based.

  18. jon

    My post on Why it Matters: Diversity and Google+ includes a fairly-current roundup, with links to statements earlier this week from Vic and Brad of Google that acknowledge it hasn’t been handled well and talk about changes in the process but also reaffirm their “common name” policy as well as quotes from some of the responses to Skud’s survey and links to some great posts by Kee Hinckley, Sai, M.M.Faulkner, and others.

    Caterina Fake’s Anonymity and Pseudonyms in Social Software is a good look at the issue in general.

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