Tag Archives: privacy policies

Marginalisation remains in Google’s ‘more inclusive’ naming policy

In a post on Google+ today, Bradley Horowitz announced that Google+ have revised their handling of names in order to work “toward a more inclusive naming policy”. In itself, this sounds great, but I was right to be hesitant in my celebration.

Previous problems

There were many issues with Google+’s original ‘Real Names’ policy. Put simply, Google tells users they must use their real names on Google+ and, if it is suspected users are not complying with this, they may have their account suspended – unless they happen to be a high-profile celebrity, of course. Disregarding the obvious profitability that comes with accurate user data, we heard the typical arguments about how real names create accountability and make people play nice with one another. (I’m still far from convinced this is the case. Boing Boing has a nice, recent discussion on this debate if you’re interested.)

The Geek Feminism Wiki page, Who is harmed by a “Real Names” Policy?, which I keep linking everyone to, highlights the issues better than I can. Along with the simple technical issues – ‘Um, I don’t have exactly two names so I can’t fill in my real name in your system?’ – comes a long list of people who can not or do not want to use their real name for valid reasons such as safety, avoiding harassment, or not wanting their voice marginalised due to assumptions others make about them from their name.  This is a real issue for a lot of people directly, and for the rest indirectly – we lose their voices in the conversation.

So any improvements on the policy should be positive, right?

The changes

As well as facilitating more languages (this is great!) Google has allowed users to include a desired nickname along with their full, ‘real name’.  To be absolutely clear, there is no indication that users will ever be allowed to hide their real name from others. This is simply a feature that allows users to include additional information.


First and last names are still unable to be hidden on Google+.I admit, this is a step forward, but it certainly is, as Horowitz states, “a small step”. They’re helping people use more complicated real names and they’re helping people be recognised next to their more common pseudonyms. But the people for whom major changes are more urgent are not assisted at all here. Those victims of assault who don’t want do be located by their abusers? Those people who dare to prefer that their social presence is not easily searchable by banks and potential future employers? Citizens who want their words heard for what they say rather than for the gender or colour of the hands that type them? They still need to be comfortable listing their full, legal names or not use the service at all. In short, they’re still not welcome.

Statistics and justifications

And this is where it pains me to read the justifications for this system change. It is claimed that because users submit three times more appeals to state a nickname than to use a pseudonym primarily, this is a reasonable response. However, if people do not want to declare their real names in the first place, then they would not fall under the category of ‘users’. They are not included as part of this statistic that wants to be included. However, if it’s simply referring to users attempting to create a new account (the wording is a little unclear), this isn’t including those who are aware of the real names policy and do not bother signing up as a result, or join using a fake name that the system happens to let through. They go unrecorded.

Of course, there are other issues with the wording as it stands – just because someone doesn’t submit a name appeal (I haven’t!) it doesn’t mean they have no opinion on this issue or would not be negatively affected by Google doing nothing – but the suggestion that allowing pseudonyms is an unimportant feature request because of some careful number gathering appears to be an indication that they’re just going to keep on avoiding this legitimate concern. They’ve “listened closely to community feedback” but decided to only implement those changes that don’t question the original real names policy.

In short, I believe the stated 0.02% of users who submit a name appeal to use a pseudonym is a strong under-representation of the number of users who would actually prefer this option – not to mention those who would simply like it to be available, even if they don’t change their own name to a pseudonym.

Every time I see Google implementing a new feature, I see ever more clearly who they really are.

I read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta this afternoon while thinking about social media service exclusions. The following verse from V’s sardonic, “This Vicious Cabaret”, struck me as relevant here:

There’s thrills and chills and girls galore, there’s sing-songs and surprises!

There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!

There’s mischiefs and malarkies . . .

but no queers . . . or yids . . . or darkies . . .

within this bastard’s carnival, this vicious cabaret.

So, I admit it may be a stretch to suggest Google is comparable to the fascist, post-apocalyptic governing body in power throughout most of the story, but the point is, if these services do what they (as corporations) intend to and gain a strong user base, while also refusing service to significant demographics and important voices, they begin erode those democratic elements of communication we were promised at the dawn of the Internet.

And this isn’t the world I want to live in.

Reviwgle+

I begged for an invite and have thus sacrificed part of my dignity to become one of the (temporarily) exclusive group of people with Google+ accounts!

I had read a bit about the service already so much of it wasn’t new to me. I was more interested in the privacy side of things so once I had access I dove straight into reading the privacy policy and playing around with user settings. What follows are a few initial reactions.

Circles

People have written a lot about how this feature is either confusing or a breakthrough in social networking. I actually think it’s neither. I’ve been using a similar feature in livejournal for years (functionality to define and choose groups who can read individual posts has been around for almost a decade now – or more than that, as I’m not sure when livejournal first implemented it) and perhaps because of this experience I view such features to be a minimum standard of user empowerment and privacy. If I can’t define my audience on a post-by-post basis, I may fall into the habit of either censoring myself or not being as careful with my message content as I should.

In short, Circles are great and everyone should get in the habit of using them. I feel it’s important for this kind of thing to become a standard feature of social networking sites.

The ‘Gender’ field

Gender identity in a social media context is a strong interest of mine. I’ve written on this previously, but to put it simply, I don’t feel comfortable with the focus technological systems tend to put on gender (or sex) and hate it even more when they are restrictive and prescriptive.

Google+ earns a few points with me because, unlike Facebook, users have the option of choosing ‘Other’ rather than being limited to ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. However, Google+ loses a lot of points because users only have the option of choosing ‘Other’ if they don’t wish to pick ‘Male’ or ‘Female’.

Both services make this choice a mandatory one. All users must define themselves in relation to an out-of-date – and in many cases offensive – gender binary. Yes, I am aware that gender is viewed as a highly important field for marketing purposes, and that companies such as Google and Facebook find this information valuable, but for many users on social networking sites gender is either irrelevant or, at least, of no more importance than other, optional fields.

Of course, it can also be argued that gender status is important from a technical perspective, making it possible to use gendered pronouns throughout the system. However, Google+ appears to handle the ‘Other’ option’s syntax quite well. If this is a major reason, it should be clear to users so they can make an informed choice about their user experience. If they prefer gendered pronouns to be associated with their alerts, their profiles can be altered.

It’s about this point in conversations surrounding gender status in social media that I usually link to two great discussions from last year, on this topic in relation to Diaspora.

Sarah Dopp “‘Gender is a Text Field’ (Diaspora, backstory, and context)

Sarah Mei “Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora

Gender and privacy

Perhaps helped by my interest in both gender and privacy, I immediately recognised an issue with the Google+ profiles that conflicted with the Google+ Privacy Policy (28 June 2011 version) which states,

In order to use Google+, you need to have a public Google Profile visible to the world, which at a minimum includes the name you chose for the profile.

As I was playing around with the privacy settings in my profile, I noticed that I could not change the visibility of my Gender status. This meant that my Google Profile, at minimum, includes my stated gender as well as the name I chose for my profile. Not only does this conflict with the statement that “You can control the privacy of the content that appears in your profile tabs”; it also directly conflicts with Google+’s Privacy Policy.

One great feature of Google+ is that it has a ‘Send feedback’ button in the bottom right-hand corner of the interface. I was sure to send off some feedback about this conflict – but not before I had a chance to post about it on Google+ and Twitter. To my surprise, on Friday Morning (~8am, +10 GMT), less than 48 hours since I sent my feedback, I noticed that it was now possible to hide Gender from public profiles! I received no reply (hey, they’re probably quite busy this week!) so I can’t be certain this is a result of my work, but I like to think it could have been.

(EDIT: Apparently this change may more likely be a result of a previous campaign, helped by a widely discussed post from Randall Monroe.  Though there is no mention of the Privacy Policy conflict.)

Another issue here is that, because Gender is mandatory – there is no ‘opt-out’ – and, by default, profiles are optimised for search engine results, all users give permission for their stated Gender to be associated with their chosen profile name – at least at the initial stage – and for this to be accessed and archived by searched engines. I can’t test for certain without creating a new account, but I suspect Gender is likely set to public by default. If so, despite them making its visibility alterable, I still feel this is a potential privacy issue.

(It should probably be noted that Facebook is worse in dealing with new user data. Names, gender, birthday and email addresses are public by default, and thus allowable to be used by third-party entities. All the information you provide Facebook during registration is ‘post-opt-out’, a term I plan to write about soon.)

I feel systems such as this should be privacy by default. I feel all publication of personal details should be opt-in. I don’t know if this would be considered a good business model, though, so I’m not holding my breath for corporate players to adopt better practices in this regard. Privacy is still not a large enough issue for that to happen.

Google+ good – Privacy Policy

Google certainly wins points when it comes to simply explaining what it does with user data, and in making it simple to understand how to customise privacy settings. (Though I’m an experienced ‘power user’, so not everyone would feel this is as clear as I do.) However, as Google+ is in very early days, it’s unfair to compare this to Facebook and the regular changes made to its privacy settings. Still, the Google+ package doesn’t have to deal with third-party applications and advertisers (at least ones not already part of Google) so it has a much easier job in this regard.

For now, at least. There is already speculation that Google+ may incorporate other features such as third-party games and applications.

Google – the bad and the ugly

I trust Google to use my data in a way I have consented to. I trust them not to change privacy settings in a way that leaves my personal information temporarily vulnerable. But at the same time, I’m very conscious that the system is there to collect information about me that will be used for marketing purposes. Though I recognise that I’ve registered for a ‘free’ service from a company that needs to make money, reminders about the business relationship we have make me feel uncomfortable.

I was surprised to see recently that pseudonyms are not allowed on Google+ profiles. Facebook does something similar and Mark Zuckerberg has publicly stated it is because accountability guides people to act nicer on the Internet. When people hide behind an anonymous identity they are more likely to act like arseholes to each other. While this may be a correct (though simplistic) observation, there is a strong privacy case for using pseudonyms.

Again, livejournal is a great example here. The system allows users to create an identity that links back to their meatspace identity as much or as little as they like – technical experience permitting. Users may also create multiple identities to better hide interests and, say, membership to support communities from other online friends. When a user loses interest in the content discussed in particular communities, they may leave at any time without their actions being easily attributable back to them in meatspace. My five years as a Sailor Moon fan*, taking part in public discussion with a secret identity can be safely ignored, believed never to come back and haunt me when I run for president.

Google and Facebook, on the other hand, rely on ‘real’ names. This has obvious marketing potential. But it also has not-quite-as-obvious ramifications for identity. Jacob Appelbaum has stated, “Everything you do on the Internet paints a picture that tells a story about you tomorrow.” This is a great quote I keep coming back to because it helps highlight the relation between contemporary action and future ramifications. While it can be argued that all online actions can be tracked back to their source, Facebook and Google make this simple. If I used Facebook rather than livejournal when I expressed my love for the world of Sailor Moon, I’d have that associated with my real name forever. Now imagine how much more concerning this situation is when we start discussing mental health support groups or discussions about illegal actions.

Eric Schmidt once suggested teenagers change their names when they turn eighteen to distance themselves from their youthful hijinks. Realistically, though, a name change is not enough to bury your online activities from anyone if you used your real name to begin with.

But perhaps my biggest issue with Google+ is that it’s ‘like Facebook, but better!’ It’s a step forward in terms of user privacy, but it’s not actually a big step. We’re still being asked to allow a walled garden to mediate our social interaction so they can make money from our personal details through advertising. On the one hand, Google could have done much better and released something revolutionary. On the other hand, this could never have happened if it needed to consider the profitability of such a system. It doesn’t make good business sense to allow Google+ users to easily communicate with other social media platforms.

And this is where we stand. No closer to seeing the mass adoption of a federated social media system that grants users complete control over who holds their data, “just as you now choose your e-mail provider, and yet still connect with friends who use other services.” (Ariel Bleicher, “The Making of Diaspora”)

Also, Google+ does not (yet?) use nested comments. So that’s an automatic minus fifty points from Googfyndor!

Summary

Google+ is better than Facebook for various reasons, mostly to do with user privacy. Facebook is still better in practice because Google+ doesn’t have the large user adoption – yet.

But I still don’t like the shared, basic premise of either system. I’ll definitely play around with Google+ for a while longer, and keep submitting feedback every five minutes when I have an idea for improvement (sorry, extremely busy Google developers – it’s just that you’ve got a button right there and it tempts me so!), but I’m going to continue using email to have conversations and organise social engagements because it’s easier, safer, and (among the people I associate with) email raises fewer problems of accessibility.

Until I can use a service to communicate with everyone without requiring them to join a new, commercial service that may not be around forever, it is a broken social networking system.

* I’m only kidding**.

** . . . Or am I? Perhaps that is the point!