Skud vs. Google+, round two

Today, two weeks since I was first suspended from Google+ and just over a week since I was blackholed in their so-called customer support system, I submitted a fresh request for review via the form linked on my suspended profile page.

The name I was using: Kirrily “Skud” Robert

Evidence I provided: links to about a dozen websites calling me by that name, or simply by “Skud”, including GitHub, Wikipedia, Ohloh, the Geek Feminism blog, and LinkedIn (which has the Kirrily “Skud” Robert variant). I also linked a news article in Wired that referred to me as Skud.

Just a few minutes after I submitted the form, I got this from Neil @ Google Profiles Support, along with a shiny new ticket number:

Hi,
Thank you for contacting us with regard to our review of the name you are trying to use in your Google Profile. After review of your appeal, we have determined that the name you want to use violates our Community Standards. Please avoid the use of any unusual characters. For example, numbers, symbols, or obscure punctuation might not be allowed.

You can review our name guidelines at http://www.google.com/support/+/bin/answer.py?answer=1228271

If you edit your name to comply with our policies in the future, please respond to this email so that we can re-review your profile.

Sincerely,
Neil
The Google Profiles Support Team

I replied with:

I have removed the quotation marks. Could you please re-review?

Again, very soon, I received:

Hi,
Most users choose to use their First and Last names in the common name field in order to avoid any future name violation issues. All pseudonyms or nick names can be placed in the other names field below the common name field.

Sincerely,
Neil
The Google Profiles Support Team

“Most users” do, do they? Could it be because, as senji pointed out on Twitter, they get their accounts suspended if they don’t?

(In passing: how annoying is it that they can’t tell you if there are multiple problems in their first contact? Instead you have to go back and forth, as they keep disclosing additional rules and requirements one by one.)

In any case, I wrote:

“Most users” may choose to do that, but for me, it won’t help, because I am not commonly known by my first and last legal names.

“Skud” is the name by which I am primarily known. I am compromising here, and trying to come up with something you’ll accept, by including my birth name at all. Few people on Google+, or indeed anywhere, know me by my birth name. I am known as Skud by professional colleagues, friends, lovers, people I live with, almost everyone. Many of them do not recognise me if I use “Kirrily Robert”.

Google previously denied my request to use the name that I’m commonly known by (i.e. Skud), which I thought conformed to your policy of “use the name that your friends, family, and colleagues know you by”, so I am trying to come up with something that still makes me identifiable to my social network, but meets your requirements.

I beg you to reconsider your decision. My social network as “Kirrily Robert” is weak and irrelevant, but as Skud I am well known. Perhaps not as well known as Lady Gaga or 50 Cent, but still moderately famous. I need Google+ to recognise that Skud *is* my common name and allow me to use it in a way that is visible on my posts and comments, not just on my profile (which people won’t generally see).

Yours, respectfully,

Skud

That was at 3:52pm, US west coast time. I know that Google has TGIF from 4-ish onwards, and that I shouldn’t expect a response after that time. From what I hear, though, if Neil went to TGIF he would have seen a question about my case appear on the Google Moderator system that’s used for Q&A, and would have seen Larry Page skip right past it, refusing to respond. Stay classy, Google management.

Google+ names policy, explained

I’ve been talking to anyone and everyone about what’s going on with Google+’s names policy, and thought it was well past time to write up my best understanding of the situation. I was going to say “I’m no expert”, but actually, I probably know more about this than just about anyone outside of Google (and perhaps more than them), and the Googlers aren’t speaking. So, here’s what I know.

The following information is gathered from user reports, public statements by Google+ staff, and a variety of unofficial/backchannel discussions I’ve been involved in. I’m not going to cite every assertion here, because many of them were given to me privately (eg. by affected users who forwarded their communications with support), so you’re just going to have to take it on trust that I’m not pulling this out of my arse.

In any case, I hope this provides some clarity as to what’s happening, and helps with our ongoing discussions around the G+ “nymwars”.

Table of contents


The policy as written

Google+’s Content policy, aka “Community standards”, says:

13. Display Name

To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your full legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, either of those would be acceptable.

Additionally, on the page Your name and Google Profiles they say:

Use your full first and last name in a single language.
If you use your full name, you’ll help people find you online and connect with the right person. Note that professional titles such as “Dr.” or “Prof.” aren’t allowed in the first or last name fields. If you’re referred to by more than one name, just choose one, and place the others in the “Other names” section of your profile.

Avoid unusual characters in your name.
When you create your profile, our system will check the name you submitted for unusual characteristics. For example, numbers, symbols, or obscure punctuation might not be allowed.

Your profile and name must represent one person.
Google Profiles doesn’t support profiles for couples or groups of people. Additionally, you can’t create a profile for a non-person entity such as a pet or business. Google may continue to allow existing profiles that don’t meet these criteria, as long as the profile names are unchanged.

Don’t use the name of another individual.
Impersonation is a serious issue. Pretending to be someone else could cause your profile to be deleted.

The difference between the two statements (one: “use the name you are commonly known by”; two: “… as long as it has exactly two parts in a single language, etc.”), and the problems with assuming that people are known only by one identifier to everyone they communicate with, are subjects for another post. I’ll just note that the language as written is not non-problematic, but I’ve included it here for reference.


The policy as implemented


What triggers suspension

Profile are flagged for review when one of the following triggers occurs:

  1. Another user flags your profile for any form of abuse, including but not limited to “fake profile”.
  2. You change the name in your profile to something that trips the automatic flagging system.

Note that “legacy” names — those carried across from profiles that predate Google+, or which were created very early in Google+’s public availability, seem to be “grandfathered” into the system, and don’t seem to be checked unless reported.

If you change your profile name, the following things seem to trigger the automatic flagging system:

  • Mononymity, i.e. having only one name (and having just a dot, or similar, in the “last name” field).
  • “Unusual characters”
    • Actually unusual characters, like a heart symbol (❤).
    • Punctuation marks, including quotation marks, parentheses, and possibly even hyphens and apostrophes.
  • Unusual capitalisation (including capitals appearing within a name, as in McWhatever)
  • Spaces in either part of your name, for instance “Marie Claire” as a first name.
  • Name using more than one character set, such as a name which uses the Latin character set for their first name and the Chinese character set for their last name.
  • Certain words, possibly including profanity, names of famous figures or deities, etc.
  • Professional titles such as Dr., Prof., etc.
  • Suffixes such as III or Jr.

The above is an incomplete list.


Stage 1 review

Once a profile is flagged as possibly violating the standards, it goes through a very basic review by a human (which I will call Stage 1 review — note this is not an official term, just what I’m calling it for convenience). The people involved in this are dealing with high volumes, are not well trained, and appear to have been instructed to err on the side of suspension of there is any doubt. They look briefly at a name, and if they think it is in violation, they will suspend the account.

In addition to the aforementioned things that can trigger an automatic flag, we’ve also seen the following types of names suspended presumably based on other users’ reports of abuse leading to Stage 1 review:

  • Names where both parts look like a given name, eg. “Blake Ross”
  • Names from other non-Western/non-WASP/etc cultures, eg. “Mohammed —” and Native American names
  • Names belonging to celebrities (Ariana Huffington, William Shatner) presumably thought to be impersonating the celebrities

In short, anything that “looks weird” to the poorly-trained operators working through thousands of flagged profiles may be suspended.


How you know your account is suspended

You will receive no notification by email or otherwise. Your Google+ homepage (i.e. your “stream”) will appear as normal. The symptoms of a suspended account are:

  • You can’t post anything, or comment. (Error message: “There was a problem saving your post. Please try again.”)
  • Your profile page has a message on it saying that you are suspended (see image below).

notice of suspension

Your profile is suspended. After reviewing your profile, we determined that the name you provided violates our Community Standards. If you believe this profile has been suspended in error, please provide us with additional information via this form, and we will review your profile again.

Note that this message is not visible from the mobile client (I tested on iPhone, and the mobile web version) so if you are using those clients, you may not easily be able to tell you’re suspended without asking a friend to check your profile for you.


What services are affected

When your account is suspended, the following are affected:

  • Google Profiles (useless)
    • Your profile page will return a 404 Not Found for anyone other than you.
    • You will not be able to export your profile via Google Takeout.
  • Plus One button (useless)
    • You can no longer +1 anything on third-party websites
  • Google Takeout (effectively useless)
    • The only download available to you is “contacts”, which gives you a .vcf file per circle, providing links to each user’s G+ profile and email addresses by cross-correlating with your GMail contacts.
  • Google Plus (effectively useless)
    • You will not be able to post.
    • You will not be able to comment in reply to others’ posts.
    • You will not be able to join hangouts (for a while you could, but they fixed this loophole).
    • You will not be able to join huddles (ditto?).
    • Other people will not be able to +mention you in a post or comment.
    • Other people will see you in their circles as “email only”. They can share something with you that way, and you’ll get an email suggesting you join Google Plus (yeah, thanks.)
    • You can add people to your circles, but they will not receive notifications. (This appears to be a mild privacy glitch.)
    • You will not be able to export your stream or +1′s via Google Takeout
    • Account settings page is blank, no error message
    • Note: You can still do a few things, including reading your stream, adding people to your circles, and sending feedback.
  • Google Buzz (effectively useless)
    • You will not be able to post
    • You will not be able to comment on others’ posts
    • You will not be able to export your Buzz via Google Takeout
  • Google Reader (partially affected)
    • You cannot share posts. You will get a message saying, “Oops, an error occurred. Please try again in a few seconds.”
    • Older shared posts lose their comments
  • Picasa (partially affected)
    • Uploading via Picasaweb works, but when it tries to redirect you to the album you created, you get “404 Not found”
    • You will not be able to export your Picasa albums using Google Takeout
    • (anyone got details of more? I’m not a heavy Picasa user.)
  • Google Groups (slightly affected)
    • will not show your profile information and you will receive a warning to that effect

Additionally, by not having access go Google+, you will be at a relative disadvantage with respect to Google Search results.


Are people losing access to all Google services?

Some people have reported losing access to all logged-in Google services including email, calendar, docs, even Android phone features. This seems to occur when an account is suspended for supposedly-more-serious Terms of Service violations, however, people like GrrlScientist have experienced this and have no reason to believe they violated anything other than the names policy.

This was claimed to be a “bug” and we were told that they would fix it. Here’s what Google’s VP of Product, Bradley Horowitz, said on July 25th:

MYTH: Not abiding by the Google+ common name policy can lead to wholesale suspension of one’s entire Google account.

When an account is suspended for violating the Google+ common name standards, access to Gmail or other products that don’t require a Google+ profile are not removed. Please help get the word out: if your Google+ Profile is suspended for not using a common name, you won’t be able to use Google services that require a Google+ Profile, but you’ll still be able to use Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Blogger, and so on. (Of course there are other Google-wide policies (e.g. egregious spamming, illegal activity, etc) that do apply to all Google products, and violations of these policies could in fact lead to a Google-wide suspension.)

The frequency of these incidents seems to have slowed in the last week, but some accounts in this situation have not been restored, so this is still an issue.


Submitting your profile for “reconsideration”

Once you’ve realised that your account has been suspended, you may see a link saying that you can “submit your profile for reconsideration”. Botgirl Questi documents this. No evidence is required — you simply click a link.

As far as I can tell, this simply causes the human reviewers to take a second look. I’m calling this Stage 1.5 review.

Some people have reported that at this stage they are required to enter a phone number for verification of their account. It is unclear what this is meant to prove, nor whether this number is stored and used for anything else.


Submitting evidence for Stage 2 review

Other people see a link to a form to fill out, which leads to what I call Stage 2 review. This is an interactive process, as opposed to the previous stages of review, where you wouldn’t hear anything at all from support.

(It’s unclear why some people get the “reconsideration” link and others get the “fill in a form” link.)

If you make it to the form, here’s what it looks like:

Appeal form

Our Community Standards play an important role in insuring a positive experience for everyone using Google Profiles. As part of our standards to help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, please use the name that your friends, family, or co-workers usually call you. [...] If you believe that we have mistakenly suspended your profile for having an unauthentic name, please fill out the form below.

The form asks for:

  • Name (required)
  • Email (required)
  • Profile URL (required)
  • Photo ID (optional): “Attach a copy of your ID with your name and photo clearly visible. You can block out other personal information. Your ID will only be used to verify your name and will be deleted after review.”
  • Links on the web (optional): “Please provide us with a link to a reputable website where you are referred to by this name. Examples include Facebook, LinkedIn, a school or university student directory, or a news article.”


What it takes to get your profile restored

As far as I am aware, the following will result in having your profile restored fairly promptly:

  1. Your name is a simple, Western-style two part name, eg. Jane Smith and,
  2. You submit your government ID that shows exactly the same name, or a close approximation of it, or,
  3. You submit a link to a Facebook or LinkedIn profile that shows exactly the same name as you use on Google+, or a close approximation of it.

No other combination of factors is guaranteed (or even likely) to get your profile restored promptly.

(Note: I have not yet heard of any successful cases of people using a school directory, and have seen definite evidence of news articles not be accepted.)


What won’t get you restored

The following situations will not get your profile promptly restored, but rather, will most likely lead to (at best) back-and-forth with support and (at worst) refusal to reinstate your account:

  • You have a name which is not a simple, Western-style two-part name. For instance, the legally mononymous Sai and the unusually named 3ric Johanson, both of whose names appear as such on their government-issued ID, initially had trouble getting their names accepted by support.
  • You have a nickname, pen name, pseudonym, handle, or other alias which you use instead of your legal name. No amount of documentation of the fact that you use the name in daily life and are known by it by the majority of your acquaintance will suffice.
    • Exception: major celebrities such as Lady Gaga, 50 Cent, T-Pain, and Soulja Boy seem to be exempted from this.
    • Exception: a small handful of non-famous people seem to have managed to get exceptions through direct contact through friends at Google, but this route has dried up since the mass suspensions of July 20-somethingth.
  • You include a short form, nickname, or alternate name in your Google+ name. This will seldom be accepted, even if it matches your Facebook or LinkedIn profile. (See Allen “Prisoner” Firstenberg in comments below, or the case of Bernhard “ben” Tremblay.) You will be told to put this in the “nickname” field in your profile, not include it in your visible name. You may be able to achieve a workaround by removing the quotation marks, though no instances of this have been documented recently.
  • A Facebook or LinkedIn profile that does not match closely based on the first/last name. For instance if you are “Skud .” on Google+, and “Kirrily Robert (Skud)” on Facebook, that is not considered sufficient match.
    • Match is based on only on first/last name, not “aka” or other names shown.
    • The URL of your Facebook profile page doesn’t count for anything either.

The following types of evidence are documented as having been refused by Google Profiles Support:

  • Accounts on social networking or blogging sites other than Facebook or LinkedIn (eg. Twitter, LiveJournal).
  • Publications under the name you use (eg. links to a book on Amazon or to major/mainstream websites that have published you under that name).
  • Public appearances under the name you use (eg. conference speakers who appear under that name in conference proceedings).
  • Credits under that name for musical works, film and television, etc.
  • Testimonials from employers, parents, cohabitants, or anyone else who knows you by that name, regardless of the number or sincerity of them.
  • Newspaper articles quoting or referring to the person by that name.


They really want government ID

Attempts to prove that you are using “the name you are known by” by any means other than those listed (as “optional” and “examples”) on the review form will be met with a response insisting that you send government ID:

Thank you for contacting us with regard to the name used in your Google Profile. We have reviewed your appeal and need more information in order to verify that the name entered [whatever] is your common name.

Please reply to this email with a copy of your government issued ID, which we will dispose of after review. Once we receive this information we can review your appeal and come to a final decision.

(emphasis mine)

So in short, although government ID is listed as “optional”, attempts to use anything other than a limited handful of types of evidence will result in them insisting on government ID.

On July 29th, Google+ community manager, Natalie Villalobos, wrote in comments here:

In this case, +aestetix aestetix is correct: providing a government ID is an optional part of the Common Names process and our reviewer is incorrect when he says that he needs a government issued ID to confirm the name. We are adjusting our process to prevent confusion about this in the future.

However, many accounts are still suspended and people are still being asked to provide government ID.


Profile reinstatement

If your profile is reinstated, you will receive an email that says:

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.

(emphasis mine)

Your profile and access to all Google+ and related features should be immediately restored.


The black hole

Certain questions or behaviours can land you in the “black hole”, where support refuses to communicate with you in any way. These include:

  • Refusing to give Government ID when prompted, or asking why your other evidence was not accepted.
  • Refusing to rename your account to what they think it should be. If they think your “common” name is Foo Bar, but you continue to insist that you are primarily known as Baz.
  • Any repeated contact, after about three back-and-forth iterations.
  • Any request to escalate to a support supervisor.
  • Any rudeness or incivility whatsoever, including frustrated snarkiness.

Due to the nature of the black hole, it’s hard to tell exactly what gets you put there, but the above seem to be common factors.


Re-suspension

If your name is finally approved and your profile reinstated, you are not out of the woods. No flag is set saying “this name is approved”, and you may be re-suspended at any moment.


Other mis-communications

Support may claim that you have:

  • Changed the name on your profile since they last looked at it
  • Deleted your profile

… when you have done no such thing.


Updates etc.

I’m hoping to keep this updated with the my understanding of what’s going on. If you know of anything I’ve missed, or have other examples, please get in touch.

Changelog:

  • 2011-08-04, 6:30pm: Added “reconsideration”, aka “stage 1.5″
  • 2011-08-04, 7pm: Added notes on “nicknames” as middle names, h/t Allen “Prisoner” Firstenberg (in comments below)
  • 2011-08-08, 1pm: Expanded section discussing effects on various services, added section on phone verification, removed reference to Hong Kong naming conventions (apparently I was confused about that)