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Google has begun banning users en masse from its social network, Google+, for using pseudonyms, or names with added punctuation. Google's response has been to point out that the rules are clearly state in the terms of service -- the only problem, is that those rules fly in the face of internet tradition, and most people don't read them in the first place.  (Source: icanhascheezburger)

+MuscleNerd, a famous iPhone hardware hacker, is among the banned users. His name doubly violates the TOS -- it has punctuation AND it's a pseudonym.  (Source: iPhone Dev Team/+MuscleNerd)

An ex Google engineer also had his account suspended.  (Source: Skud)

As did famous female open source proponent Limor Fried (she is in the rare minority to have her account reinstated, it should be noted).  (Source: Limor "Ladyada" Fried)

But PepsiCo JOBS is still alive and well. We don't know who this "PepsiCo" fellow is, but he sounds like a really entertaining chap.  (Source: Google+)
So much for being the more "open" network

Google Inc.'s (GOOG) campaign to create a more private social network has hit a bizarre roadblock courtesy of Google itself.  The company has begun suspending users from Google+ -- and much more -- for violating its "Terms of Service", which demand users use their real names.

I. What's In a Name?

Some services like Twitter allow celebrities like politicians or actors to "verify" their identity, so people can be confident that who they're speaking to is the real deal and not an imposter.  With Google+, Google takes this a step further, demanding everyone use their real name, and demanding evidence from its former employees and celebrities that they really are who they say they are.

While the idea of identity verification is fairly tried and true, Google's ban on everyday users employing pseduonyms has created a privacy identity crisis for the young service.  And the problem is compounded by baffling inconsistency: Google has reportedly cracked down on some high profile individuals, while sparing others who used nicknames.

Before we go further, let's stop to consider what Google+ is.  Google+ is a social network which uses various Google services like Gmail and Picassa to create a comprehensive set of services that is quite reminiscent of Facebook.  Like Facebook, Google+ employs a clean page look, unlike some competitors which allowed individuals to adopt more colorful, garish themes (here's looking at you MySpace/LiveJournal).

The service is currently in "field test" mode, but has gained over 20 million users.  While that's far short of Facebook's 750+ million active users, it's good enough to place it on a short list of the world's top social networks.

A key to Google+'s appeal is in the fact that it provides a slick interface to share information with custom groups of individuals ("Circles"), which it says (and many agree) provides superior privacy to "other social networks" (aka. Facebook).

But what if you wanted to hide your real name from some (or all) of your cyber-friends and acquaintances? (Note: these are often quite different from your real world friends.)

Google not only does not provide this option to you -- it is actively working to ban any user who tries to use a pseudonym.  It is unclear exactly how many users have been banned -- but it is quite widespread, and the ban list is growing.

II. Why Would You Want to Hide Your True Name?

At this point you may be wondering, what's the big deal?  Why would you want to hide your name?

Well, using a pseudonym has long provided a degree of anonymity -- both online and in the real world.  For example a number of high profile writers use a pen name, which is not a true name.  This manufactured title offers a degree of anonymity and protects the writers' privacy in their personal lives.

On the internet this privacy is often equally desirable.  For most people, if someone skilled wants badly enough to figure out your true identity, they can.  However, using a pseudonym on forums and elsewhere helps protect you from the garden variety cyber stalker, or their ilk.

Pseudonyms are also often used to provide color.  Hackers (both hardware/firmware and software) often adopt a pseudonym, which embodies their larger-than-life digital personality.  And offline, celebrities often do the exact same thing.

III. Tales of the Ban

So far a number of high profile individuals have been banned.  Among them are open-source diva Limor Fried "Ladyada" (aka. "Lady Ada") [source], who recently graced the cover of Wired Magazine, and "+MuscleNerd", a leading (legal) iPhone hardware hacker and member of famous "Dev Team" [source].

In Ladyada's case, at least her account was fully restored post-mortem -- apparently because of her celebrity.

Another high profile suspension has been that of former Google employee -- Kirrily "Skud" Robert.  Mr. Robert joined the banfest when he made the mistake of using his nickname "Skud" as part of his registered name, and had his account suspended last week.  Of course, Mr. Robert also happened to be a vocal critic of Google's hiring practices, so one wonders if that had anything to do with his violation being singled out for suspension.

Google's service department kindly emailed Mr. Robert:

Hello,

Thank you for contacting us with regard to the name in your Google
Profile. It looks like you have deleted your Google Profile, and thus we
are unable to take further action on your request for us to review the
name in your profile.

Sincerely,

Ricky

The Google Profiles Support Team

The only problem, writes Mr. Roberts, is, "I never deleted my account."  

Google is apparently taking its bannings to an extreme in many cases.  Madge Weinstein, a cult podcaster's pseudonym, writes, "[The supension] just happened to me- but they not only suspended gplus, but rather all google services incl gmail!"

Another user writes:

Dear Google, I would like to bring to your attention a few things before I disconnect permanently from all of your services.

On July 15 2011 you turned off my entire Google account. You had absolutely no reason to do this, despite your automated message telling me your system “perceived a violation.” I did not violate any Terms of Service, either Google’s or account specific ToS, and your refusal to provide me with any proof otherwise makes me absolutely certain of this. And I would like to bring to your attention how much damage your carelessness has done.

My Google account was tied to nearly every product Google has developed, meaning that I lost everything in those accounts as well. I was also in the process of consolidating everything into my one Google account. (…)

In other words, if a user opts to join Google+, they risk losing all of their services.  And even if they manage to convince Google to lovingly restore those services, there's word that the content within (e.g. your pictures in Picasa, your emails in Gmail) may be dead and gone -- purged forever from cyberspace.

To make matters worse, there are a deluge of corporate profiles that blatantly violate Google's terms of service, which Google is taking its sweet time to ban -- for example pages for Amazon.com, Inc.'s (AMZN) Amazon Prime service and a page for The Coca-Cola Comp. (KO).  While both of these pages were eventually removed, you can still find PepsiCo Jobs and Microsoft Office Expert online.

Mr. Robert, having been victimized by Google's draconian TOS rampage, has started a page to collect a list of users' who had banned accounts.  You can find that page here.

IV. Google's Response

Thus far Google seems to be holding firm.  "Infrastructure engineer" Gothwam S, writes:

Hi everyone,

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:

When creating or updating your Google Profile, you may find that your entered 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.

To ensure the success of your appeal, please make sure you are adhering to our Community Standards:

Those community standards are found here.  Those standards, as mentioned state that you must use your true first and last name.  Further, punctuation is prohibited.  So even if I created an account Jason Mick++, I'd likely be banned.  In other words, MuscleNerd's account was likely doubly in violation of Google's strict rules.

The issue here is that most users who sign up for sites, never carefully read the terms of service -- a  fact Google seems oblivious to. And while a link may be provided during the registration process, finding it post-mortem takes much more digging.

Between the lack of clarity in the registration process, the surprise crackdowns, inconsistent policing, sweeping deletions that span all of Google's services, and the post-suspension account purgings, Google is creating a bizarrely Orwellian atmosphere, in which everyday users have to live in constant fear that their online footprint could be deleted due to some "terms of service" violation.

The whole mess brings to mind Activision Blizzard, Inc.'s (ATVI) misguided efforts to make users use their real names in the forums to prevent trolling.  Fortunately, the company had the good sense to drop the effort after mass outcry -- common sense Google has thus far lacked.

The simple solution would be to dump Google+, but that would also be disappointing given that the new network does provide a number of privacy-geared features that Facebook doesn't.  Many users appear to be simply mobilizing to try to force Google into action.

Hopefully Google can fix this mess as soon as possible -- and hopefully it realizes that pointing users to the terms of service page post mortem is not a fix.


Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Good Riddance
By bplewis24 on 7/25/2011 12:24:01 PM , Rating: 2
If I'm being honest, I am for whatever policy that keeps a person called "musclenerd" off the site.




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