Monday, July 25, 2011

Why have a Bill of Rights when you're not a duck? (Identities in the government and private sectors)

There is a common misconception about the U.S. Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments to our Constitution. People often think that the Bill of Rights lists a bunch of things that can't be done to you. Actually, the Bill of Rights lists a bunch of things that THE GOVERNMENTS (Federal, State, local, etc.) can't do to you.

Take this example. If I stand on a street corner and say that the Los Angeles Dodgers have a terrible owner and should be sold, the governments can't do anything about it. But if Steve Garvey, a Los Angeles Dodgers employee, says that the Los Angeles Dodgers have a terrible owner and should be sold, the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers has the right to fire him. Garvey cannot claim that his "freedom of speech" was violated, because that is a government issue, not a private issue.

OK, now take this example. If I write something under the name "Ontario Emperor," and as long as the item that I write doesn't violate any law, the governments cannot prevent its publication. But private companies, such as Google and Facebook, could prevent me from using their services to publish it.

Over the last couple of weeks, some people who have joined Google+ have suddenly not only lost access to Google+, but also to other Google services. Why? Because they used names like "Logical Extremes" or "Spidra Webster" or "Lady Ada" or "Doctor Popular" on Google+. There's been a ton of coverage about this issue, from people such as Violet Blue:

A striking number of Google+ accounts have been deleted ... as the new social network struggles with its community standards policy around real names - alienating and frightening the people it aims to serve.

Violet Blue links to a number of stories of people who have lost access to Google+, and sometimes other Google services.

Emlyn has written about two types of people:

•Integrated Identity: These are people who live online and offline with the same personality (including the Technorati because in fact their unified identity is their bread and butter), and

•Separate Identities: people who keep their online and offline worlds quite separate, not for duplicitous reasons but because they are in many ways two people; the online person and the offline person.

At one point, separate identities used to be a requirement to be online. I signed up for a BBS under my real name, and was told that I should adopt some type of pseudonym. So I became Wasp the Houseboy on those BBS services, and several years later I became Ontario Emperor on Yahoo, Google, and other services. I (mostly) dropped use of Ontario Emperor a couple of years ago, and just in time too - if I had used my Ontario Emperor Google account to get onto Google+, I'd probably be banned by now.

Many people discussing the Google+ identity issue have appealed to this statement from Google's Alma Whitten, written back in February:

Using a pseudonym has been one of the great benefits of the Internet, because it has enabled people to express themselves freely—they may be in physical danger, looking for help, or have a condition they don’t want people to know about. People in these circumstances may need a consistent identity, but one that is not linked to their offline self.

However, this statement is being taken out of context, since it is only part of what Whitten is saying. Whitten actually describes three levels of use - unidentified (using Google without a Google account, which still allows you to search for stuff), pseudonymous (from which the aforementioned quote was taken, and which is currently supported by Blogger and YouTube), and identified (Google Checkout is the example cited here).

Clearly Google has the right to put Google+ in the "identified" category, and Google has the right to yank Google+ accounts that it deems as not "identified," without recourse. And Google has the right to do other things that are outside of the scope of this post.

And while Google's actions have the potential for alienating customers of its business services, I suspect that for Google, the costs of alienating a few verbose bloggers are outweighed by the benefits of letting Google's real customers - the advertisers - know exactly who is using Google's services.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd wonder about the fact that Google waited about yanking the pseudonym Google+ accounts until a few weeks after the early adopters had talked up Google+ as the Facebook-killer. But now that Google+ has over 10 million users, the conspiracy theorist would claim, Google can now satisfy the needs of its advertisers and not worry about the early adopters any more.

Frankly, I don't think Google is that smart. I've been around enough bureaucracies to know that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, and that the left hand probably wants to disable the right hand. Alma Whitten, for example, is talking to researchers, not advertisers.

If nothing else, the whole episode reminds us that any company - Google, Facebook, Twitter, or your local message board - has the right to yank its free (or even paid) services from you at any time. While Twitter suddenly looks more attractive to the pseudonym-loving crowd, the day may come when Twitter also insists on real identities. Perhaps I'll ban comments on this blog from Canadians. Or perhaps this blog might disappear tomorrow after Google sees the stuff that I've written in this post and shared elsewhere.

However, the City of Gould can't touch me for what I write.
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