fuzzy notepad

[blog] Google postdecrement

It’s reasonably well-known by now that, if you don’t have a Google+ name that looks sufficiently white and Anglo-Saxon, they’ll suspend your account and require photo ID.

This raises a couple questions that i don’t think have gotten adequate attention.

One: Why is this okay?

Yes, i know it’s legal, and you can use another service, and whatever apologetic tripe. That’s not interesting or constructive; shut the fuck up.

I want to know why it is okay—that is, humanly inoffensive. Most of the conversation has been about hypothetical political outcasts on the run from their curly-moustached evil dictators, and how those people clearly need to use pseudonyms.

Okay, well, i’m not one of them. And i doubt you know any such people. I doubt most of those engaged in this conversation know such people. Maybe you know some people with quirky fetishes they’d like to talk about with a separate identity, but that doesn’t really conjure the same dramatic image.

Still, i admire the devotion to principle here. So here’s another, far more simple, principled question, which few have come out and asked: why is it okay for Google to tell me what my name is?

I’m not a political dissident, or a closeted hard BDSM practitioner with a day job as a lawyer, or a teacher with invasive and spiteful students. I’m not hiding from anyone. I just go by a nickname. And immeasurably more people know me by that nickname than by my real name. It’s my IRC handle, my Twitter handle, the name on all my git commits, the name my best friends and roommates and even sister use to address me. And it’s not on my ID.

I don’t particularly appreciate being told which name i have to use as a primary identifier. The name you pick is how people find you, how people link to you, how all your content is labeled. The faux-chummy UI even addresses you directly by your first name. It’s weird and slightly uncomfortable, like my mom set up my account for me.

Google emphasized that you don’t have to use your actual legal name; you should use the name by which you’re commonly referred. Then they suspended the profile of a Google employee who goes by Ping. I have a hard time reconciling this with their stated policy.

Across all the counter-arguments about how the Internet would be a better place if everyone used their real names, i’m still confused about what, precisely, such people think a “real name” actually is. I’ve gone by Eevee for nearly a decade by now. I’m two of the first-page Google search results for “eevee” (from a clean slate, anyway). Is this name not real? Am i not sufficiently accountable for what i say under this moniker?


There’s another facet to this question of okay-ness which virtually nobody has mentioned. Maybe this is strange of me to ask. Maybe i’ve been infected by libertarianism somehow. Maybe i’m just nuts. Please let me know.

Why is it okay for an online service to ask for a copy of my government ID?

I can only even name a handful of brick-and-mortar places that want to see ID. You have to flash it at airports and to buy booze, but those are both because of government regulations, and i am okay with showing a document to the same body that issued it to me. Banks check ID to verify my name, but that’s verifying the same name against itself as a security measure for me. I guess Greyhound once asked for ID to make sure i wasn’t stealing some other dude’s tickets, but that was actually an isolated occurrence.

Now suddenly we have the notion of scanning your ID and sending it over the Internet to some faceless nobody. And Google is asking you to, so it sounds perfectly legitimate. Apparently Facebook has started doing this too! What is going on? Why is it okay for them to ask for this? Why are we agreeing to do it?

(An aside: I really need to write another revision of an identity post, because this is one of the big problems i think we have. Short of using a credit card, there’s not really a good way to verify legal identity over the Internet, and i am sort of okay with not giving MasterCard, Visa, or their skeezy rickety system that kind of power.)

Most absurd of all is how worthless this system is for actually identifying anyone. Remember that the whole point of a photo ID is that i can SEE that the person standing in front of me is the person identified by the card. Now put this on the Internet where i, uh, can’t see you. You don’t have to actually have an ID; you just have to have a picture of an ID. Gosh, how would anyone ever find one of those.

You can even fake an ID to get someone else’s account shut down; i guess Google thinks no two human beings have the same first+last name? And best of all, if the name on your ID still isn’t WASPy enough, the crack squad of Google+ moderator interns will still reject it, without giving a real reason. Words fail me.

To recap: we are sending our primary identification along an insecure channel to an anonymous (oh, the irony) employee who is still only checking whether the name “looks right”, not whether the ID is valid. And this is the least criticized part of the whole system.

The precedent this sets worries me. Just a bit.

Two: What is this meant to accomplish?

Please help me figure this out, Internets. I just don’t get it.

The popular idea is that Google wants real names for their advertising value. I don’t buy that. Not because of my limitless faith in Google, but because i don’t believe that real names have that much advertising value. If you already know that i like open source, puzzles, and gadgets, what more value do you get from knowing my name? You’re going to get that if i buy something from you anyway. It’s not like a real name makes for a very good unique identifier; they change, they’re not unique, they have a lot of variations. These aren’t even little oddities that only apply to a handful of outliers: most marriages result in a name change, the most common names are the most commonly duplicated, and most people with Biblical names go by shorter versions that don’t appear on ID or birth certificates. So i don’t really see the advertising value here.

Google themselves have claimed that Google+ is actually an identity service, but that’s kind of bogus as well. If i wanted to use Google+ as my primary identity mechanism, i’d sure as hell want it to sport the pseudonym whose reputation i’ve been building for the past however many years. I’d like to think that someone high up at Google would actually grasp this if identity were the plan.

The more paranoid among us have proposed that Google is colluding with governments or something, but given their hilariously shoddy handling of government ID, i have my doubts about that as well.

The problem with this question is that Google has insane resources, yet they’re really not putting much effort into any part of this process except appearances. (Some of you may think this is all sounding familiar. It is. I’m so sad about that.)

Government ID isn’t rigorously checked, or even checked for most people at all. Foreign or unusual names that are nonetheless legal still have problems. Because the system is spot-checked, fake but “normal” names are unlikely to be caught. The appeal process is slow and opaque, with Google seemingly more interested in leaving outliers suspended than letting them prove their innocence.

My best guess is that Google is just hoping to develop an image that will gain mass appeal as quickly as possible. Consider the state of its only existing popular “community” product: YouTube. I can easily imagine some VPs wetting themselves over the thought of Google+ turning out the same way. The enemy is Facebook, after all, where even grandma and grandpa post photos; if Google can’t lure them away then this has all been a waste.

Most of Google’s stupid moves have been (from where i’m standing, at least) the work of well-meaning but slightly bumbling engineers. WiFi SSIDs are sniffed from the air because, hey, that’s cool information. Privacy policies are copy/pasted between products because that stuff is droll and boring. But this… this is, at best, the work of frightened and very bumbling marketers. I hope there’s a grand explanation for all of this, but i have a hard time imagining how Google could fix it by now, given what’s going on on the inside.

I deleted my Google+ account; not really a big statement, since i hadn’t used it and didn’t intend to. Social networking platforms are narrow and useless for me. I still want to see identity and relationships become part of the Web, not the purview of a massive central site that changes every other year.

I’ll try to eke out a post on identity and whatnot sooner or later. This is still a major problem, Google+ and Facebook do not solve it, and there are multiple issues needing attention that protocols like OpenID and BrowserID don’t really address.

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(illus. by Rumwik)