Monday, August 29, 2011

Us And Them (Fred Wilson on Google's real names policy)

For those who don't know, Fred Wilson is one of the major financiers of Twitter, a competitor (of sorts) to Google+. And last weekend's tempest in a teapot revolves around the real names policy of Google+.

But let's start with Andy Carvin:

I'm at the Edinburgh Intl TV Festival and just got to ask a question to Google CEO Eric Schmidt regarding real names on G+. I asked him how Google justifies the policy given that real identities could put people at risk.

He replied by saying that G+ was build primarily as an identity service, so fundamentally, it depends on people using their real names if they're going to build future products that leverage that information.

Regarding people who are concerned about their safety, he said G+ is completely optional. No one is forcing you to use it. It's obvious for people at risk if they use their real names, they shouldn't use G+.

Carvin went on to note that these were paraphrases, and that he did not have an opportunity to ask a follow-up.

But the paraphrases got Fred Wilson thinking.

It begs the question of whom Google built this service for? You or them. And the answer to why you need to use your real name in the service is because they need you to.

Again, let me reiterate two points. First, Google has the right to do whatever they want with this real names stuff. Second, Google's customers are (for the most part) NOT the people who sign up for Google services. As I've noted previously, Google has explicitly stated that Google's customers are the advertisers that buy ads on the service. So if Google's advertisers need to know who is seeing the ads, then Google is going to serve its customers.

But are Google's advertisers truly demanding to know the exact identities of the people who use Google?

Let me cite a rather well-known example. I've mentioned Thomas Hawk in this blog a few times (here's an example). Hawk is obviously someone that Google's advertisers would covet, since Hawk shares his photography in numerous places online. I don't know Hawk's endorsement policies, but I'm sure that if we were to mention that he uses Brand X camera equipment, the manufacturers of Brand X would see a nice return.

But guess what? "Thomas Hawk" is as real as...well, as real as Logical Extremes. Hawk blogs and shares under a pseudonym. Granted it's a very well-known pseudonym AND it looks like a real name, but it's still not the name that Hawk uses when he cashes his stockbroker paychecks. (His real name is available online from several sources, not that I know how accurate they are.)

Now if you're a Google customer (i.e. an advertiser), would you rather know that some guy named Andrew is talking about your camera equipment, or that Thomas Hawk is talking about your camera equipment?

It's all a little murky.

But if I were selling a privacy product, I'd want to know if Logical Extremes were commenting on it - something that Google does not allow at this stage.

And yes, LogEx has discussed privacy. This post, written before the appearance of Google+, is ironic in retrospect:

A basic Google Account can be extended with Gmail. In this case, Google asks for an additional (minimal) set of information):

+ First Name
+ Last Name
+ Desired Login Name (this becomes your Gmail address
+ Security Question & Answer (choose a question from the menu, or make up your own)
+ OPTIONAL Recovery email address

Again followed by a word verification to thwart bots, and a button to click to agree to the Terms of Service, the Gmail Program Policy, and the Privacy Policy. That's it.

Again note that there is NO mention of Name (or Birthday) in the Terms of Service or the Gmail Program Policy. You can use your real name or a pseudonym. Google doesn't care.

By 2011, Google had introduced a third tier of account, including Google+, and it suddenly DID care.

Oddly enough, however, I found this.
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