Users just can't stomach Google's real name policy

When Google first started enforcing its “real name” policy, I thought it would be a bit of a storm in a tea cup. A week or two of bad PR and, I thought, they’d quietly drop it.

But Vic Gundotra, Google’s Senior Vice-President of Social Business, has shown no signs of backing down. If anything, the situation has worsened with many more people being either threatened with or experiencing an account suspension. Journalist Violet Blue was warned her name — which is her real name — violated Google’s policy, whilst Australian tech writer Stilgherrian, whose single name is in fact his legal name, was disconnected.

Even tech pundit Robert Scoble, who had previously been in favour of the real names policy, has now changed his mind in light of the threats against Blue. He posted publicly an email that he had sent to Gundotra:

The real-name policy you've put in place aren't [sic] workable.

I agree with them and have defended your policy quite a bit all over the place here on Google+. I agree with you that "being real" is the best aesthetic, but they simply aren't being enforced fairly, or properly, and it's causing too much distraction. 

[…] I share your enthusiasm for trying to differentiate from Twitter and other online forums and getting people to use their real names, there are other ways to do that than just kicking people off the system.

Google+ has attracted hugeamounts of criticism, but two particular issues worry me. Firstly, because of the way that Google products are interlinked, if your Profile is suspended, your access to these other products is also suspended. It's unclear, in practice, which of Google’s products you lose access to. Some people have found themselves locked out of everything including Gmail, others have found that it's a subset of services, including Buzz, Reader and Picasa (photo sharing).

Secondly, word from inside Google seems to be that the 'nymwars', as they are now being called, are not going to end any time soon. AFP

Secondly, word from inside Google seems to be that the 'nymwars', as they are now being called, are not going to end any time soon. Stephen van den Berg, a developer and Google+ user, put out a call to his friends inside the company to see if anyone could shed light on what was going on. What came out is far from reassuring.

According to van den Berg’s (ironically) anonymous sources, Gundotra is in no mood to back down: "To him, anyone with a different view on his vision 'just doesn't get it'." Larry Page is "very dismissive of comments by Googlers who disagree with the names policy". And Sergey Brin is "conspicuously absent from the debate".

So what this means is that even if you are using your real name, if someone takes against you and reports you often enough, you can still lose access to some or all of your Google services. Furthermore, some people who have had their account reinstated have the next day found that it has been suspended again, so jumping through Google's hoops once doesn't guarantee that your account is safe.

And this is how it's going to stay.

This is worrying. I've been a Google user for years. Like many, I started off using Search, then got a Gmail account shortly after it launched. At that time, I was running probably about six different email accounts, one or two personal and the rest related to projects I was working on. The spam I was getting through those accounts was just too much to bear and so over time I let them die away and migrated completely to Gmail, with is incredibly effective spam filtering.

Then, like a frog being slowly brought to the boil, I adopted different Google services when I found them useful. Reader ties together my RSS feeds on my laptop with those on my phone and iPad. Google Docs has become a key professional tool for sharing and collaborating on documents. GCal has become my default calendar application, again because I can easily access it on my phone. Google Groups has replaced Yahoo Groups because again, it's better at keeping out the spammers. GTalk has become a useful IM tool, although I still run AIM. I have a YouTube account, from before Google bought them. I have a Blogger account, from before Google bought them.

Without realising it was happening, I’ve become almost inextricably entwined with Google. And that now scares me, because now I'm at their mercy. If someone decides they don't like me they can rely on Google’s 'Suspend now, ask questions later' attitude to cause me a lot of trouble.

Google has, with Google+, created a tool perfect for the trolls and griefers, precisely because the stakes are so high and the system so easy to game. This isn’t just about getting kicked off bit-player social network, it’s about a potentially serious interruption to services that you’ve come to rely on.

Is it foolish to trust a single company with so much of your day-to-day data? Possibly, but it's not that black and white. Using third party tool carries risks and up until now I was ok with the risk I was taking by using Google. No longer. I have already started backing up bits of my Google data using Backupify and will be looking at Google's Data Liberation Front for more ideas about how best to make my data safe.

I can't turn my back on Google completely, but I can try to minimise the risk I'm taking by using their services.

Published Date: Aug 23, 2011 12:58 pm | Updated Date: Aug 23, 2011 01:34 pm