More comments on Google+ and names

I’ve been seeing a lot of the same things get asked/said repeatedly so I thought I’d cover a few of them here.

“Why not just change your Google+ name to Kirrily Robert? That would get your account reinstated.”

Honestly, if Google’s support people tell me that’s what I need to do, I will do so. They have not yet told me that I need to do that. I’m playing dumb for now, and seeing how it plays out, because I’m interested in the review/appeal process.

If I do change my Google+ name to Kirrily Robert, I will (presumably) get my account back, but I won’t use it much any more. It will become like my Facebook or Quora accounts, two other services where I have an account but seldom use it because it feels weird to be using an identity at odds with how most of my friends know me.

“You knowingly violated the TOS, what did you expect?”

Sort of. The so-called “Community Standards” say, “Use the name your family/friends/colleagues know you by”. I am abiding by the rules as stated, though I admit that I am doing so in the knowledge that policy that’s actually enforced by Google differs from what they have published.

So yeah, I knew I would probably have my account suspended. I’m not too worried by that, because I’m not all that invested in the platform. And I thought it would be interesting and educational for someone who understands the system quite well (my recent ex-Googler status helps with this) to poke at it from outside and see how it appears to work.

My goals were, firstly, to help highlight the problems with the policy, and secondly, to test out and document the processes around it. This seems to be going well so far.

“People are losing access to all their Google services when their account is suspended!”

A lot of people are talking about this so I wanted to address it.

As far as I know, people are not losing access to all their Google services simply for using a name that Google doesn’t like. I have not yet heard of a single documentable case of this. (A documentable case would involve a G+ profile page that looks like this and contains the words, “we determined that the name you provided violates our Community Standards.”)

What I have heard is that many people are losing access to all Google services for some form of ill-defined “violation of our Terms of Service”. This is getting conflated with the names issue, and it’s not surprising. Google’s communication is weak, and they don’t tell you exactly what TOS you broke, so it’s easy to think it must be the name-related thing you’re hearing about happening to other people.

Some other considerations:

  • Google+’s TOS forbids a range of content including “spam”, “hate speech”, “copyright”, and so-called NSFW content but nobody’s quite sure where the lines are or how it’s enforced, so it might be that you’re getting shut down for content violations you didn’t expect.
  • Google+ allows anyone to report an account for abuse. While it’s unclear how those reports are escalated or how many of them are needed to lead to account suspension, if the bar is set too low (as it seems to be), this can lead to many capricious suspensions. (If you thought DMCA takedown notices could be used inappropriately to harass or intimidate, consider that Google+ only requires someone — anyone, not even the copyright holder — to click a button that says “copyright” to achieve the same effect.)
  • Google+ has no facility for “warnings” prior to suspension. Other services (even Google-run Youtube) typically freeze/hide/take down specific content, or send you a warning telling you that you must do so yourself, rather than suspend an entire account with no warning.
  • There is no clear understanding of the scope and range of TOS enforcement. Does TOS violation on one Google service result in losing access to that one service, or to multiple services? This doesn’t seem to have been well thought through.

The last point is an important one. As Google encourages people to consolidate more and more of their online lives in Google services, it’s going to be increasingly important for Google to maintain separation between services when it comes to TOS enforcement. You shouldn’t lose access to your email and documents just because you posted a risque picture on Google+ or a fan video to Youtube, any more than you should have your car towed for not paying your phone bill.

So, to sum up: as far as I can tell, people are not losing access to GMail and other services for using the wrong name on Google+, but they are losing access to those services for a cluster of other reasons which relate closely to the names problem.

“Their service, their rules.”

I’ve heard a number of people say that restaurants, retailers, and other businesses can put up signs that say, “We reserve the right to refuse service for any reason,” so why can’t Google? The thing is, businesses can say that all they want, but they if they attempt to not serve someone because they’re black, or queer, or disabled, they can expect public criticism and, in many cases, prosecution under anti-discrimination laws.

Sometimes, when businesses discriminate, they do so indirectly. “We don’t discriminate against women,” they say, “just against people who care for children,” or who have long hair, or any of the myriad other traits strongly associated with being female, or part of some other class. Indirect discrimination is discrimination nonetheless, and in some jurisdictions is just as illegal as direct discrimination.

(And just to make it completely clear: using a name other than that which appears on your legal ID is strongly correlated with being a member of one or more marginalised or discriminated-against groups. See: Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy?)

So no, first of all, businesses can’t just say “our service, our rules”, if those rules are considered discriminatory under the law. Secondly, even if the law does not recognise their practices as discriminatory, it’s still valid to complain about them. This is especially true when it relates to an institution in a position of widespread power and ubiquity, rather than a niche or specialised service.

“It’s only a field trial, you can’t expect perfection.”

I believe this field trial went out too early, and that policy and communication strategies around the names issue — which Google knew would be a big deal — should have been in place before they went live. While I don’t expect perfection, I do expect something at least halfway usable, and the names policy, its enforcement, and the review/appeal process aren’t anywhere near that. (The same goes for gender privacy, too — now fixed, but shouldn’t have been launched in that state, in my opinion.)

That said, I have sympathy for the developers who are trying to do a lot under a great deal of pressure. We know to expect bugs, and we’re giving them a lot of leeway as we test out the system, send feedback, and generally kick the tires. People are being pretty good-natured about the rough edges, on the whole, and either let them slide or sent feedback. (I even sent feedback on the feedback tool, asking for a counter to show how much feedback I’ve sent.)

It would be nice if Google would provide the same sort of understanding toward us, by erring on the side of caution when wielding the banhammer, as we try and figure out how the system works based on, quite frankly, very little clear information.

4 people with names written on their hands

Party nametags from my couchwarming party, September 2010, at my house in San Francisco. Three of four people shown -- who I know offline, and interact with face to face -- are using names which would not be permitted on Google+.

34 thoughts on “More comments on Google+ and names

  • Singularity Utopia

    Google are showing callous disregard for the values of democracy. The actions of Google are anti-freedom. How people define themselves is an vital aspect of self-expression. Google should never dare to tell people how they must express their identities. “Google” is becoming synonymous with “unfree”.

    There is absolutely no justification to curtail free-speech and free-expression regarding user-names. This G+ restrictiveness is authoritarian, it is fascist. It is disgustingly undemocratic.

    People need to widely mention the #plusgate hashtag to help raise awareness regarding these issues.

  • David Gerard

    Google has long been terminally incompetent at anything that even slightly requires customer service. Remember when they were trying to sell phones directly to the consumer? They gave up because they just do not do customer service. All the disastrous areas of G+ (indeed, of Google) are things that require customer service.

    I was wondering when G+ started how it would go with Google’s autistic-engineer attitude to customer service. I think we have our answer.

    Of course, this could all be planned: maybe they really think they’re at the point where geeky early adopters are a liability and the whole thing can go mainstream without them! Yeah.

  • Bill Toscano

    I have been struggling with this topic all day, and this really helps, as did Emlyn’s piece.

    As far as I know, people are not losing access to all their Google services simply for using a name that Google doesn’t like. I have not yet heard of a single documentable case of this.

    This seems to be new, because I had people this morning swearing that it was happening.

    Do you think G+ might have targeted you?

  • Skud Post author

    Do they have screencaps showing their profile page (saying “your name violates our community standards”)? I’ve heard people assert that this has happened to them but when I got them to check it actually said the vaguer “violation of our TOS”.

  • David Gerard

    “I’ve heard people assert that this has happened to them but when I got them to check it actually said the vaguer “violation of our TOS”.”

    I think in the present problems, this is a distinction without a difference, and making much of a deal of it is a distraction at best. Google’s internal jargon does not make their actions less problematic.

    It’s also really clear that nothing Google says – officially, the unofficial words of employees, or the precise wording on the block screen – makes any difference to their actions. As such, anything they say should be ignored as noise; only what they do should be taken any notice of.

  • the hatter

    I’m surprised on three related fronts. I was amazed that when I signed up, gender was both required and binary; I’m surprised they’re acting on pseudonyms and other name choices in general, rather than only offensive, copyright-infringing and spam-promoting ones. Their cracking down on organisational accounts also seems massively shortsighted, it’s established practice to use them in other social media and if google weren’t ready with their platform for it, they could have just asked people to tickybox and then asked them to switch over once they have a system in place.

  • Bill Toscano

    No. You are my primary source on this.

    People were adding that to comments on links to you.

    I don’t know Google’s corporate structure at all.

    Does the fact that this is a weekend affect their lack of response or are they usually not overly responsive.

    They are really getting shelled.

  • alostsoul

    This kind of stuff are the EXACT reason why people should stop wanting Google be the number 1 monopoly everywhere. A monopoly starts when you gain 20%+ market share in a month, too.

    Browser: Chrome is rising way too fast and some years later people will regret. Firefox is a much better bet.
    Social: G+, need I say more? Proof in this post
    Search: Already the case. They ban you from their search (and it happens), your business is DEAD
    I don’t think I need to go on with their other services, It’s pretty obvious that they can read your gmail and they can also delete your email there. In fact, you agree to them reading your email.

  • Singularity Utopia

    Hit the bastards where is hurts. Block all their ads and encourage other people to block adverts. Don’t bother whinging about the fascism at Google (#plusgate #googlefail #nymwars), simply destroy their options for revenue: adverts. BLOCK ALL ADS!

    The internet is much better without adverts, and the best thing is that by blocking adverts Google loses money and that’s something they care about. They don’t care about people but they would care if everyone started blocking adverts.

  • Skud Post author

    ChicagoKrista on Twitter says that the legal term is disparate impact, however it applies specifically to employment law.

    This blog post by a Second Lifer has some interesting comments on “legal names” in US law:

    One may be employed, do business, and enter into other contracts, and sue and be sued under any name they choose at will (Lindon v. First National Bank 10 F. 894, Coppage v. Kansas 236 U.S. 1, In re McUlta 189 F. 250).

    Such a change carries exactly the same legal weight as a court-decreed name change as long as it is not done with fraudulent intent (In re McUlta 189 F. 250, Christianson v. King County 196 F. 791, United States v. McKay 2 F.2d 257).

  • Skud Post author

    Hmm, gender on G+ has never been binary — it’s been “male, female, other” since launch. And it’s now possible to make it private too.

  • the hatter

    Oh, I’m misremembering about the choices as I don’t have a massive problem identifying as one, but do remember looking at the choices and knowing that the options offered would offend a fair number (though a tiny percentage) of people, and that having to list this publicly would upset those people and a large proportion of others. I was glad to see the privacy option, just surprised it wasn’t available by the time I signed up, which wasn’t as early-adoptery as I often am.

  • Tateru Nino

    Who the heck would think to follow Kirrily Robert anyway? Skud has always been Skud. For differing values of ‘everybody’, well, ‘everybody’ knows that.

  • Jeff / Dax

    Thank you for taking up this issue so vocally, Skud. Many of my friends use pseudonyms on their Google+ profile, and if they get called on it, I’ll be sure to direct them to your survey page. Sad to see you leave the company, but I understand your position. I know many of us will be continuing the pro-pseudonym argument from the inside, and will call upon your work as much as we can.

    -Jeff (Dax)
    friend of Barak
    and former-officemate from the Embarcadero side of SPE-2

  • Matthew Brown

    Google’s belief has been from the beginning that customer service can and should be automated; that it’s just a matter of tuning the algorithms. That’s a problematic thing.

  • tai

    I *DID* put in my legal ascii character based name, and I’m still in lala land. Maybe I should have put in my legal unicode based chinese name.

    In my profile page, I don’t even get that “If you believe that your profile has been suspended in error, please provide us with additional information via this form, and we will review your profile again.”

    been 3 weeks now. Did send a message via the send us a note link that I found somewhere.

    This is getting stupid.

  • Cefiar

    Keep at it Skud! I’d sure like to use ‘Cef’ or ‘Cefiar’ everywhere, as that’s what most people know me as. Even my mother, who died back in 1996, used to call be ‘Cef’. Cef is so much of my persona that I did seriously consider changing my name at one point.

    One of the few reasons that I am so far unwilling to risk my G+ account on this issue is that I’ve now run into a few people on G+ that I haven’t seen for 15+ years that I really don’t want to lose contact with (working on moving them out of band). I am however voting on the Google Moderator things, and pushing hard on the pseudonym questions to hopefully make it happen.

    PS: Boo!

  • Timantec

    From Wiki Answers: “The word googol means 10 raised to the hundredth power. Googol was going to be the spelling of Page and Brin’s company until at one time someone misspelled it as Google. It looked better to Page and Brin and the name has stuck ever since.

    Google basically is a play on the word googol meaning a number followed by 100 zeros”

    So, Google is basically a pseudonym. But hey, if a pseudonym is how everyone knows you… it’s okay, right? See link below, which clearly states this to be the case.

    Or did I have a stroke and completely mis-remember how words go together in the commonly used English language and that’s not at all what they meant?

  • Sciencegrrl

    This spam prevention policy actually fosters spam, for i cannot report being spammed for fear of getting the axe!

  • zellieh

    The well-known GrrlScientist had had her entire Google account suspended, and when she contacted Google, they said it was because she used a pseudonym. Link:

    As a UK resident with a pseudonymous online life, I’m pretty sure this violates UK & European Union Data Protection and Privacy laws.

    Firstly, forcing people to reveal their real names would go against data protection law. Secondly, any communications service like G+ involving a public directory (Google’s profiles & you Google ID would both be public directories since they’re searchable) has to allow users to be ex-directory, keeping their private information such as names and addresses hidden. If they insist that you must use your name as your ID & username, they’re violating your privacy — and the law.

    This post explains it better:

  • zellieh

    I’d like to add another defence I’ve seen a lot that makes very little sense: “They didn’t know this would happen, they made a mistake, and now they’re trying to fix it.” Which doesn’t work as a defence because just last year they had to deal with just these same privacy issues, violations of privacy laws, and problems with pseudonymity/real names, when they tried to launch Google Buzz using people’s real names taken from their Google Profiles. Add in the way that Facebook’s been repeatedly in trouble for the same sort of issues — and what you said about giving them your own warnings — and you have to wonder what the Google+ team and execs were thinking.

  • David Gerard

    Paul – what we have is (a) clearly discriminatory behaviour (b) Google being informed of the clearly discriminatory nature of the behaviour, at length, by many (c) Google responding not by changing their clearly discriminatory behaviour, but doubling down.

    It’s at point (c), where they know what they’re doing and insist on continuing, that I think we can reasonably claim the “intent” part of “racism”, if you insist on an “intent” component being present. Knowing what you’re doing and being dismissive of concerns quite definitely counts as delberate action for all reasonable purposes.

  • sabik

    “Indirect discrimination is discrimination nonetheless, and in some jurisdictions is just as illegal as direct discrimination.”

    Hmm, I think that jurisdiction would be the planet Earth (except Angola, Burma, Malaysia and North Korea), at least as far as racial discrimination is concerned. That’s what the Wikipedia seems to say about the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, anyway…

Comments are closed.