Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and Stan Lee need not apply to Google’s hot new social network, Google+. The Web search giant, it seems, isn’t interested in pseudonyms or other phony identities. Its IRL (in real life) all the time – and that’s a problem, according to a spate of news articles this week. But don’t believe them.
Its true: a string of publications have sounded off on Google+’s problem with “privacy.” In articles like this one from News.com and this and this one. But Google is hardly the only social network that looks askance at fictional identities.
Rest assured, reader: since Google pulled the wraps off Google+ last week, every security reporter worth their salt has been hunting for a good angle on the story. Alas, its been slim picking. For one thing, Google+ isn’t so much more than a slick, new UI that knits together a lot of existing products and features, including: Google Profiles, Google Photos, and the ill-fated Google Buzz. That means any security issues that exist are likely to be already known about and (more important) written about. But we finally found something to write about with this stuff around pseudonyms. Or did we?
The gist of the Google+ privacy articles this week is: if you want to hide behind a fake name, don’t count on Google+ to be your “phony me” social network. Things are, of course, a lot messier than that. As Steve Shankland at news.com points out, if you’re someone whose Second Life avatar is as fully formed as (or even eclipses) your IRL (in real life) identity, Google isn’t sympathetic to your desire to build a social net around that identity.
Besides, artists, authors and political activists commonly work and socialize under an assumed name, without any nefarious intention. Sadly, we wont be reading status updates from contemporary Mark Twains and Lewis Carrolls on Google+, nor will we be checking out the Picasa account of any later day Weegees, either. On this score, Google+ is unforgiving. But its hardly alone.
The truth is: Google+ isn’t the first social network to adopt this policy. In fact, Google+’s main competition, Facebook, likewise bans anonymous or pseudonymous profiles.
“Facebook has always been based on a real name culture,” Simon Axten, Facebook’s Manager of Public Policy Communications told me in March. The issue back then was whether Facebook was banning users with the words “Anon” in their profile name. They did – though that had nothing to do with trying to stamp out Facebook profiles associated with the hacking group Anonymous, Axten assured Threatpost. Instead, the company uses what Axten described as “extensive gray lists” that include both words that aren’t typically associated with names humans have, and what Axten described as “thousands of dictionary words commonly associated with fake accounts.” Users who try to create a new account with one of those words (like “anonymous” or “anon”) were blocked from joining the social network.
So, as it turns out, there’s not much sunlight between Facebooks’ “real name culture” and Google’s insistence that your Profile with them really represent you. And, its not silly to suggest that folks sporting fake identities might want to refrain from trying to build large, inquisitive, lightly bonded networks of friends around them – in the same way that someone walking down the street with a Halloween mask on their face risks having some inquisitive stranger rip it off.
That isn’t to say that Google doesn’t have a privacy problem. Far more problematic is the company’s insistence, in March, that anyone sporting a Google Profile make that profile public, or risk having it deleted permanently. This was, almost certainly, an announcement that helped lay the groundwork for Google+ and likely speaks more to some platform limitation of + than any desire on Google’s part for total transparency. Still – drawing users in with the option of having a private profile, only to yank that option away when you’re ready to actually leverage the profile in a new social network strikes some as…well…a bit evil. The full story on Google+ has yet to be written, and it remains to be seen whether Google will do a better job a privacy then, say, Facebook, which has found itself embroiled in controversy time and again for what users felt was duplicitous and overly acquisitive data retention policies.