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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:


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.



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, 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.

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RE: The cupped hand flexes
By Tony Swash on 7/25/2011 2:42:21 PM , Rating: 3
I have no illusions about Google. I know exactly what they are up to.

However, this may be your most ridiculously blind post, since you are quite the fan of Apple, who is legendary in thier grasp of thier consumer's "balls" as you put it. The only difference is Google wants control for free. Apple makes you pay.....a lot.

All companies want to ensure customer loyalty.

Apple locks you via iTunes, Microsoft locks you in via Office file formats, whatever.

But please - Google is not free. Google gives some stuff away for free but the stuff Google gives away is not their business products. You are Google's product. What Google's business does is collect data about you and then sell you to people wanting to buy targeted advertising. And that's it - that's the sum total of Google's business, that's what Google makes 95% plus of it's revenue from. Selling you. Google get's you, your data, records about your many decisions and actions by giving stuff away free, stuff which comes with built in data collectors, and then watching what you do and collecting data.

Google's free stuff is popular, heck it's free. Google's fear is stuff happening where they can't watch people and collect data. So Google uses its large income from its data mining and advertising business to create free version of products other people sell and then Google gives away those free versions (all with their data collectors built in) and in the process destroys other companies business models. But what the heck - it's free!

Sometimes Googles takes other people's property and repackages it and gives it away free which is why it will probably lose a string of court cases shortly. But that won't stop Google's primary business activity and modus operandi: collecting data and giving away free stuff so they can watch what you do and collect and then sell data.

Now all this may not worry you a jot. You may really like some of Google's free stuff, I do! I use their search (can't live without it) I use Gmail.

But what are we to make of world in which Google completes its aim which is to see everything and watch everyone? And what are we to make of dependency on something free like Gmail if one day Google can just announce you excommunicated and there is no one to call?

I don't know - I still use Google's free stuff whilst I think about this. I think it's worth thinking about and I sense that it's something to be concerned with. But I still use their free stuff.

RE: The cupped hand flexes
By nafhan on 7/25/2011 3:14:28 PM , Rating: 2
You're singling out Google here, but your points apply to all companies that run advertising networks. This includes Apple (GASP!), MS, Facebook and a number of others. The only difference between Google and Apple customers in this respect is that Apple customers are paying for the "privilege" of having their information sold.

Also this is ridiculous:
that's the sum total of Google's business, that's what Google makes 95% plus of it's revenue from. Selling you.
This is very dramatic, but there's a huge difference between "selling you" and selling ads based on information they've gleaned by watching your browsing habits, etc. You make it sound like they're engaged in human trafficking.

RE: The cupped hand flexes
By Tony Swash on 7/25/2011 4:16:17 PM , Rating: 1

You're singling out Google here, but your points apply to all companies that run advertising networks. This includes Apple (GASP!), MS, Facebook and a number of others. The only difference between Google and Apple customers in this respect is that Apple customers are paying for the "privilege" of having their information sold.

Well first of all Apple's ad business is tiny in terms of it's overall revenue where as for Google ad income represents pretty much all of Google's business. So collecting data on users like you (and me) is not just a core function for Google, it is the core function.

This leads to a key characteristic that shapes Google's response in many arenas. By definition any arena of activity on the internet anywhere that is not open to Google to data mine undermines it's business model. Google must have total access across all sources in order to sell their product to their customers (those who purchase ads) because as soon as Google is shut out of some significant part of the web and it's user data is significantly incomplete then it's value is reduced. Hence it's alarm at Facebook and it's decision to build it's own alternative and it's alarm at the rise of iOS and it decision to break it's alliance with Apple and clone the iPhone. I personally think that that last decision was possibly a profound strategic error but that's for another day.

It's interesting isn't it that Apple's prime bone of contention with publishers was not their 30% cut (which was similar to the cut others take) it was rather that Apple insists that end user subscribers via iOS should start with the default of not allowing their data to be shared with the publishers. Such user data is a big part of the publishers business and it is repackaged and sold on and hence the junk starts coming through your letter box. Publishers don't want the opt-out as default because they think most people won't opt in. And they are right.

Apple took this position not because they are saints but because their customer is you the consumer and not the publisher. Apple takes all the decisions it does in order to enhance the customers experience of it's products. Apple may do that in ways that others disagree with or in ways one may feel is erroneous but that is indeed their aim.

You (and I) are not a Google customer. I have never paid Google for a single thing and neither have you probably. My only existence in the Google business universe is as a data point to be mined and sold. Google doesn't want its data mining entities to be the best it just wants them to be popular, so as to mine the most data. So Google makes them free.

"Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment -- same piece of hardware -- paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be." -- Steve Ballmer
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