Google is gagging user advocates

So, I’ve mentioned that while I was at Google (until July 15th) I disagreed strongly with the Google+ names policy. I wasn’t the only one, but of course those who still work for Google need to be careful not to criticise their employer, so they’re being fairly careful about what they say online.

Take Liz Fong, a friend of mine who is — among other things — a transgender and disability rights activist, and often tweets and posts about social justice issues. She’s also interested in BitCoin and online anonymity.

In comments on this post she stated that she works on G+ identity stuff in her 20% time:

Saul Tannenbaum – You were posting interesting things about names and gender, from a perspective that needed to be heard. And, you were dissenting from your employer’s policy on their own system and doing it with professionalism. From all that, I thought you were a voice worth my attention.

Liz Fong – Yup, I’m an Official Professional Dissident and Devil’s Advocate in my 20% time :) – even though I’m personally not happy with the decision, I’m glad that I’m being allowed to play devil’s advocate :)

When G+ launched, she regularly reshared articles about names and identity on the service. Of course she was very professional and tried to be neutral and balanced in what she posted, but she did post and reshare a lot on the subject. Here is a history of her relevant posts:

Jun 28: You’re safest using your full name
Jun 30: [Policy] may be helpful for people using pseudonyms to reread
Jul 6: Official word on business profiles (reshare)
Jul 7: Abbreviate your name for privacy
Jul 7: File feedback if you feel strongly about gender privacy
Jul 7: Yet another reminder about policy
Jul 8: Reshare of Siderea’s post about names (without comment)
Jul 8: Reshare of Geek Feminism pseudonymity bingo (without comment)
Jul 10: Reshare of link to Geek Feminism post about social networking and women (without comment)
Jul 11: Well, it looks like Google PR has officially commented
Jul 11: I’ve been going by Liz since I was 15 / link to Rowan Thunder’s story of G+ suspension
Jul 11: Michael Hermeston comments on Rowan Thunder’s case
Jul 12: Reshare of Rowan Thunder’s account of the appeal process
Jul 12: Surprised that I hadn’t seen this yet in my stream (links to posts from Second Lifers)
Jul 12: Google starts wrestling with identity issues on G+ (reshare without comment)
Jul 12: More press coverage on the identity issue
Jul 12: Link to “level-headed” article by Lauren Weinstein (with comment, not speaking for employer)
Jul 12: Yes, people at Google care
Jul 12: Link to Geek Feminism roundup, asking for a similar anti-pseudonymity resource
Jul 12: Petition seems like a tool for anti-pseudonymity griefers, please send feedback
Jul 12: A personal story: I’m alive today because I was able to pseudonymously network with other transgender people online
Jul 13: TLDR summary of author’s viewpoint: verifying ‘proof’ of identity is hard, forgery is easy.
Jul 13: Playing the other half of the coin for a moment (on dress codes)
Jul 14: When I speak, I speak only for myself and not for Google
Jul 16: No safe place (reshare without comment)
Jul 16: Potential pseudonym options, “very well-written and cogent”
Jul 16: Once again, Lauren is persuasive, levelheaded, and takes the big picture into account.
Jul 18: I’ve been noticing an increase in incivility in conversations about naming issues.
Jul 19: Here’s the official word on the SMS issue and on the abuse flagging issue.
Jul 19: If you want to chat about Google+ privacy, Jonathan’s your person :)
Jul 19: An insightful post on untangling psuedonymity and anonymity
Jul 19: Some uses cases for pseudonyms are addressed by abbreviating first or last name / competition is just a click away (not speaking for employer)
Jul 21: The pants theory of Google+ (reshare)
Jul 21: You can’t have a corporate profile
Jul 21: Use individual employees to represent your business
Jul 22: This is the appeals process for suspensions
Jul 22: Welcome back Kryptyk Fish and CZ Unit
Jul 23: Here’s what Skud has to say about her suspension
Jul 23: I’m interested in seeing data from users about how the naming policy is being applied
Jul 24: Google, the pseudonym banstick, etc; “+1 insightful”
Jul 24: Matt Cutts has responded publicly on the Thomas Monopoly issue (reshare)
Jul 24: I’m trying to enjoy a quiet weekend… better start reading from the firehose
Jul 24: Reshare of Sai’s post, “one of the most thorough examinations”
Jul 24: Signal-boosting Michael Hermeston’s comments
Jul 25: I’ve been trying to solicit discussion on how to tell pseuds from obscure nicknames
Jul 25: Reshare of Bradley Horowitz’s statement

So here we have a clear history of Liz posting frequently, seldom missing a day, and often posting multiple things about Google+ identity each day.

On July 25th (four days ago) she stopped posting on the subject altogether. Looking at her stream, though, I see that she did post, without any comment, a link to a Wikipedia article talking about gag orders.

Today I was bugging Googlers to try and get a response on my suspension (I tried to escalate my case yesterday, and didn’t hear anything for more than a day), so I reached out to Liz on Twitter, where we’ve been friends for some time.

It went like this:

@Skud: hey @lizthegrey since you care about identity and g+ can you prod them about my case/help me get a response? ticket #839791762

@Skud: @lizthegrey btw i forget, do you know @sparkymonster? if not you definitely should, she is made of awesome.

@lizthegrey: @Skud I know @sparkymonster but don’t think I’ve met her face to face yet (which reminds me, I should get an ‘I know Skud’ button from her)

@lizthegrey you definitely [should]! btw did you see my previous tweet? can you prod them to respond to me?

@lizthegrey: Annoyingly long/tiring week. I plan to keep twitter for short things, and use G+ for longer essays. I doubt 3000+ people care that I’m tired

@Skud: @lizthegrey *hugs* if you want ‘em… this must be rough for you :( i’m worried that you don’t seem to be responding to my qs about g+ tho

@Skud: @lizthegrey sorry to bug you but… you haven’t posted anything about identity lately, are you not allowed to any more?

@Skud: ok, unless someone tells me otherwise, it looks like google employees who don’t support the names policy have been gagged. #nymwars

@Skud: @lizthegrey this is your chance to tell me i’m wrong, btw.

@lizthegrey: CSA veggie fetching time, then one or two more code reviews, and then home, thank goodness. *thud*

So here we have a Googler who is working on identity stuff part-time as a “Devil’s Advocate” (I guess the users are the “devil” from Google’s perspective, ugh), who has repeatedly helped disseminate information about Google+ identity policy, and who has always taken a balanced view in her public posts, asking for anti-pseudonym resources or suggestions from the community, all while being very clear that she doesn’t speak for Google officially… silenced, and forced not to speak.

(Additional irony: Google are also saying that companies/brands should have their staff use Google+, to show a human face, and are now shutting down the very employees who are doing this for Google itself.)

To be clear, this is far worse than the prior restrictions Googlers had wrt confidentiality. Of course Googler’s can’t speak about forthcoming projects or other confidential matters, and they’d be silly to post anything too critical of the company if they wanted to keep their jobs. But now Google is preventing its staff from commenting at all on existing products/features/policies, or engaging with the user community in any way, even to quell FUD or share information. That’s scary.

I know Liz as an activist and I know it must be hard for her to be silenced in this way. Her tweets and G+ posts read, to me, like someone who’s exhausted and frustrated by the whole situation. I hope she gets the weekend of rest that she so badly needs.

Meanwhile, Google are refusing to respond in any way to the questions I asked their support staff, and eventually escalated by Cc’ing to Google+ management. To summarise, they were:

  1. What evidence will you accept that “Skud” is the name I commonly use, and in what way does this page fail to satisfy you?
  2. How would you suggest I edit my name on G+ to meet your standards, while still showing my commonly-used name on posts and comments?
  3. Since some users seem to get exemptions for special reasons, what is the process for getting such an exemption?

Google are choosing not to respond, and my account is still suspended. It’s Friday afternoon, and one week since my account was first blocked. What the hell is going on in there, and why are they so scared of saying anything?

To all my friends at Google, I’m thinking of you. Stay strong, look after yourselves and each other. And give my love to everyone at TGIF this afternoon!

ETA: A couple of Googlers have told me that this gag isn’t universal, so it looks like it might apply only to those advocating on behalf of G+ users. In which case, I think that’s even worse.

Where's Skud?

A protestor holding a sign saying "Where's Skud?" outside Google's Cambridge, MA offices. Image by Shava Nerad under CC-BY 3.0

38 thoughts on “Google is gagging user advocates

  1. It is SO sad when you start thinking about a job you were really sad you didn’t get as if maybe you dodged a bullet.

    (Not using my usual pseud because I am still looking, but you’ll know my email.)

  2. This isn’t broadly the case. There hasn’t been some global gag order on the subject (or on expressing public disagreement with Google policy, or anything like that). That said, it’s certainly possible that one of the PtB has had A Conversation ™ with Liz, since she has been more vocal about it in public than most folks.

    It’s possible that there’s a gag order applying to anyone who works on ES identity issues, but my work brings me pretty close to those, and I’ve heard neither hide nor hair.

  3. As I said on twitter just now, if the gag only applies to those advocating on behalf of G+ users… then that’s even worse.

    Liz has been at all times professional, careful, and balanced about what she says wrt G+ identity. She’s been signal-boosting official policy and statements from G+ management, trying to reach out to users and gather data about what’s happening, and asking for feedback from people who support the policy/are anti-pseudonymity. If that’s what gets you A Conversationtm (to the point of not being able to even say that you’ve been told not to say anything) then I’m pretty horrified.

  4. I just saw your tweet. And I’m certainly not saying it’s better! It’s obviously worse. I was just adding the information that it’s not a widespread thing if it’s happening.

    (It’s also not especially well-enforced, as a number of Googlers have made far less even-handed comments than hers, though not to quite as large an audience, I think.)

    Another hypothesis is that there is gag order pertaining to your case, specifically.

  5. Indeed! And perhaps it’s unlikely, but it doesn’t seem infinitely so.

    I guess you have to have some compassion for the decision-makers. “Ex-Googler suspended from Google+” is a fairly juicy story, as tech stories go (it beats “iPhone 5 may be curved, made of aluminum and orgasms” at least). And it’s not like anyone could have ever predicted that a significant number of people would consider the ES names policy harmful.

  6. Heh! I remember when people were excited about joining Google, too, and downloaded all those tests for engineers with cool questions in: the knights-move 2D resistor network and everything! Yeah, those days are long gone, it seems. Saying you work for Google these days is more likely to get the kind of look you gave people in the eighties when they said they worked for IBM.

  7. Can you clarify this ETA:

    A couple of Googlers have told me that this gag isn’t universal, so it looks like it might apply only to those advocating on behalf of G+ users. In which case, I think that’s even worse.

    This seems to imply that Googlers have confirmed that there is a gag, but that it is not universal. Is this true? Or did you mean to see that Googlers have confirmed that they themselves have not received a gag, and so *if* there is one, it is not a universal one?

  8. I meant that Googlers have confirmed that they themselves have not received a gag, so if there is one, it’s not universal.

  9. I’d just like to say that, as a Googler who spends a considerable amount of time commenting publicly and interacting with users, I have heard of no such gag order whatsoever. There are some kinds of things we can’t talk about — future features, stuff which is under legal restrictions of various sorts, and so on. And people are encouraged to be careful when they speak, so that they don’t say anything which gets us into legal trouble. But I certainly wouldn’t want someone like Liz gagged; she’s in many ways been our vocal conscience, and what she says about these things is taken _very_ seriously inside the company.

  10. Anyway, just be aware that we’ve been listening and will continue to listen. Even if we go quiet for a while. :)

  11. Just shared this over on Google+… With an aside about disability accessibility. And minute or so afterwards had a notification that someone who’s name starts with an L had shared a post at me discussing accessibility issues. And pointedly not mentioning anything about the rest of the post.

    Make of that what you will.

  12. I think it’s great. Just like a boil, sometimes, it just needs a good prick and then you can lance it and clear the pus out. Google has a boil that needs lancing, and the more stupid things they do, the bigger the boil becomes, and the easier for everyone to see what needs to be lanced.

    At this time, the idiots supporting it are probably still “managing the message” upwards saying things are OK, we just gotta last it out.

    If the upper guys have any brains at all, and are not hypocrites (didn’t one of them use a pseudonym on facebook?) they will soon see how badly managed the whole thing is and apply the Hot Enemas of Enlightenment.

  13. I’m feeling surer that my decision to can my G+ account, telling them exactly why in the exit statement — not that I expect anyone really looks at those — and refusing to go anywhere near it until or unless they resolve this satisfactorily wasn’t an over-reaction.

    It’s a shame that something which *could* be quite good is being mucked up by something so boneheadedly simple.

  14. There is no proof of any ‘gag’. A non-response to a tweet doesn’t constitute a proof and quite frankly makes you seem a bit paranoid.

    This whole thing is overblown (IMO), you’re no obligated to paticipate if you disapprove.

  15. I’ve told them that the name on my passport was not Rebecca Ore, but that DoD, DHS, the IRS, and Nicaraguan immigration knew that I wrote books with that name. Apparently, there’s a double standard.

  16. A non-response to a pointed question, by a friend who I trust would answer if she were allowed, *and* a cessation of posts on the subject after a cryptic link to a Wikipedia article about gag orders, though? This is not just “she didn’t reply to my tweet”.

  17. If they want to cut down the juiciness of this story (I’ve already talked to several media outlets) all they had to do was respond promptly, and without weaselling, to my support requests and escalation. Even “we’re working on it, and will make a statement soon” would have taken some of the wind out of my sails. Instead it looks to me as if they’ve /dev/nulled my case in the hopes that I’ll give up and go away.

  18. I’m now tempted to sign up for a Google+ account (I don’t really want one) just to see if I get banned for my name. I have an IMDB entry as Smylers; wonder if that provides sufficient evidence of being known as that.

  19. It’s more than mildly disturbing to me that Facebook is beginning to look like the lesser of two evils.

  20. Why is this disturbing? Facebook certainly has its own share of problems, but they’ve been around longer; they’ve had a chance to learn from their mistakes. Google could’ve taken a page from their book (or Microsoft’s, or Yahoo’s, or AOL’s…), but instead chose to forge their own path, banking on the goodwill of their user base. They trusted that pepole would believe that any Google-produced alternative to the Big Bad Evil Facebook was better, using the tried-and-true marketing tactic of a limited beta to make sure that people would be slavering to get in and be one of the “cool kids” (and to make sure that they had the option to change policy and functionality at their whim). It’s a tactic that’s backfiring spectacularly, in this case.

  21. Liz Fong recently linked to a post by Trey Harris on what he can’t talk about, saying that that’s what she was getting at with the gag order post: https://plus.google.com/106912596786226524817/posts/6SBH6NxDcgq. My guess would be that commenting (unfavorably?) on name policies is being called “a controversial issue that Google hasn’t officially commented on”, though I have nothing to back that guess up with.

    I’m also not sure how the “it’s more effective to go through the official channels!” line squares with the greater success people have had getting accounts reinstated after asking a Google employee they know to be reasonable and push internally.

  22. Skud, you have on the very banner of your site: ‘The personal blog of Kirrily “Skud” Robert…’

    So why would you not fill in the forms the way that you were asked? Already I’ve seen G+ commenters whose nickname shows up first, while their real name appears in their hovercard. I just can’t quite see the point you’re trying to make any more.

  23. Sam, I asked them repeatedly whether Kirrily “Skud” Robert would be acceptable to them, and have changed my profile to say that, and they are refusing to respond in any way or to reinstate my account.

    There are indeed people who have nicknames/pseuds on the site (including, eg. Google employee “Cos .”) or who have nicknames embedded in their names (eg. Google employee Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick, until recently — I think he changed it the other day) so the problem I’m having is that I honestly don’t know what to change my name to to be acceptable to them, and they’re not replying to my support requests.

    (You can read about the whole process at http://infotrope.net/2011/07/22/ive-been-suspended-from-google-plus/)

    My choices at this point seem to be either to not use G+ at all, or to go the Facebook route and change my G+ name to Kirrily Robert (no “Skud” anywhere in my name), losing whatever accrued reputation I have as “Skud” and severely limiting the usefulness of the network. (And, of course, implicitly letting them bully me into the name change, despite their publicly stated policies saying that I shouldn’t have to.)

  24. Just really have to ask the begging question: Who has enough muscle to pressure Google? It’s a legitimate question. With all this “controversy” (which of course I remember at least 2 cycles of; 1984 and 1999/2000)about “real names” and the conflict with real-life common practice; given the huge backlash and wave of debate/chatter, bad PR, illwill, mistrust and business-damaging feedback regarding this bonehead move…

    I’d think Google’d know their history better. I’d think Google would have some idea of the structures of the nets. I’d think Google would be well-aware of what such a policy would evoke.

    So yeah, my “tin foil hat” comes out; I am asking clearly and plainly and I think the question deserves examination, given the armtwisting that’s been going on with monitoring centers on the backbones, questionable laws being hustled through Congress at last-minute sessions with no debate; “secret” interpretations of the FISA Act…

    Who’s got the moxie to pressure Google?

    Mock if you like. I’m just asking, given the non-responsiveness of a company that bends over backwards to maintain a “non-evil” image.

  25. at current state of play I”m afraid my response remains “Google+: DO NOT WANT”

  26. Interesting… Liz has been, up to earlier this past week, very helpful and responsive on the issue. I suppose a ‘gag order’ would make sense though, as it is clear that Google is having an internal struggle with this.

    Personally, I have concluded that this decision should be made via a cage match. Whomever rises as the champion at the end, is allowed to have their opinion prevail….

  27. I have had a similar experience. I have two Gmail accounts and therefor two Google profiles. One account I use for my professional life and one for my personal life. As there is more traffic regarding employers searching the internet with Google for internet history, I would like to further separate my accounts.

    When I changed the name on my personal profile, that profile was “suspended pending review”. Fairly quickly that status was changed to “suspended” because it did not conform to their Community Standards policy. Over seven days I made two further attempts to modify the name on my profile. My profile remained suspended. [Note: By suspended I mean that I was unable to post to Google+, to comment on the posts of others nor +1 any URLs.] In frustration I changed my profile name back to what it was. Within an hour I received an email from Google Profile Review stating:

    “Thank you for contacting us with regard to the name you want to use with
    your Google Profile. After further review, we have determined that your
    name is within our Community Standards policy. Thank you for your patience while we reviewed your profile name.”

    This email was signed, so I suppose that at least once my profile name was reviewed by a person rather than an program.

    Thank you for your work.

  28. “I’d think Google’d know their history better. I’d think Google would have some idea of the structures of the nets. I’d think Google would be well-aware of what such a policy would evoke.”

    Some at Google definitely understand!

    Having read that, the appearance of this whole mess becomes even more confusing . . . =/

  29. I remember when I was out in public with my Google T-shirts and people would say, “Wow, you work for Google? That’s SO COOL, I love all their stuff!!!”

    That was a long time ago. Now I’m seriously considering how to convert all my old Google schwag to still be wearable but logo-free. (It was made from good fabrics and I hate to throw it away.) I cannot stand behind anything the company stands for.

  30. I used to say that Google would make a better Evil Empire than Microsoft. Now I have to live with my prediction.

  31. I did the exact same re exit, but drawn back in to make rebuttal some idiotic examples of RN supporter. Hard to stay out when half of the one-sided debate is happening on the inside.

  32. I felt quite good about my decision to withdraw from G+ to preserve several years worth of email and a couple of thousand pieces in my Google Docs.

    And then last night, I learned that despite the graphic warnings that all traces of me in Google+ would disappear if I cancelled my presence there, a friend confirmed that I’m still showing as in her Circles, and not as a “share via email” user. For all my friends know, I’m still on the service, just not participating any longer. That irritates me, and makes me wonder how many others are presumed to still be there when they’re just shadows of former selves.

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