SYDNEY, NSW / The Sydney Morning Herald / Technology / News / September 5, 2011
By Ben Grubb
"So no longer may we see privacy as a fundamental civil right. It is something that is becoming, I think, commodified, and something that is becoming something you have to purchase"
Are we losing control of our online identity? Photo: Flickr/Kat B Photography
Google and Facebook are trying to remove anonymity from the web by forcing people to sign up using their real names and banning people who use pseudonyms.
But commentators argue that internet companies aren't demanding real names to make the web a more civilised place, as the net giants say, but to exploit our information and mouse clicks for more money.
In the past Facebook has been known to ban people who use unconventional names such as Australian Elmo Keep and, separately, US citizen Mark Zuckerberg, who has the same name as the social networking site's CEO. Now Google is doing the same with its rvial to Facebook, Google+.
Ben Grubb, the author of this article, is asked to link his Google Picasa web album with his Google+ account. It changes his Picasa name to "Ben Grubb" instead of "Benny", he is told. There is no option to tell Google to not do this. Photo: Ben Grubb
The former marketing director of Facebook, and sister of co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, believes anonymity on the web "has to go away". And Google's chairman and former CEO, Eric Schmidt, argues that anonymity on the internet is "dangerous" and that the Google+ social network is an "identity service" allowing people to know if you are a "real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer". He says governments the world over may eventually put an end to anonymity online.
One Sydney academic told Fairfax we may even have to start paying for privacy in the future, speculating a paid-for Facebook or Google service could be on the horizon for those who wished to stay anonymous online.
"So no longer may we see privacy as a fundamental civil right," the academic says. "It is something that is becoming, I think, commodified, and something that is becoming something you have to purchase."
Google+ names war
For the past few weeks Google has been dealing with users of its rival to Facebook, Google+, complaining about not being able to use pseudonyms or names with only one word - mononyms.
On the web, many use such names to protect their identity, while others use them as a way of being easily identified and to brand themselves.
For example, Australian YouTube star Natalie Tran uses "communitychannel" to be identified on the video sharing website.
But it's not just users like Natalie who may have trouble signing up with just one word as their name on Google+. People who have changed their names to a mononym, or are even just known by a mononym, or have had it since birth, are beginning to have trouble signing up.
One such user is Australian technology commentator for ZDNet, Crikey and the ABC, Stilgherrian, who had his name legally changed to a mononym about 30 years ago. He recently discovered his profile on Google+ had been suspended by the tech giant.
It appears Google took a guilty until proven innocent approach when dealing with his name, as he recently found out.
"I don't know whether it was for having a mononym," he says "It could've been putting a full stop in somewhere; it might have been a name that appeared to be unusual. [But] you're not actually told specifically what the reason is, you're just told your name does not comply with the policies. But they don't point to any particular part of the policies."
So why is it so important that Google needs your real name?
"One of the claims floating around is that if people are identified by their real name then they are less likely to engage in criminal behaviour or spaming or abuse or anything like that because they'll be appearing directly under their own identity," Stilgherrian says. "Now I'm a bit sceptical about whether that actually works because some [people] are just a**holes, I suppose, and they'll be a**holes under their own name."
He believes Google wants your real name because it makes it easier for friends to find you and allows for Google to do data matching for advertisers.
"But the problem with [forcing people to use their real name] is that many people are not known generally by their real name: they're known by nicknames, they're known by a pseudonym, they're known by a variant on their name.
"... it's almost like some of these people running social networks want to impose a new kind of social order without taking into account how people actually do use their identities already in offline communities."
He says people had multiple identities - at home, work and at a social club, for example - and that it was fine to have such different identities. "[People] don't reveal everything about their entire identity to every group of people that they are a member of. And that can be something as simple as ... the gay policeman in a small town [that] doesn't want to reveal he is gay and would therefore rather be online under a pseudonym."
Requiring real names 'hampers' communication
Dr Gavin Smith, lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney, says people being forced to use their real names on the web could be damaging. But he understood some of the law enforcement arguments for requiring it.
"If your real identity is increasingly needed to be used to access these spaces then that will absolutely transform what kinds of communications, what kinds of playfulness, what kinds of exchanges can take place," he says.
"I think that would hamper the kinds of playfulness and experimentation and exchanges that can take place.
"So if you start imposing an order on that in terms of 'You need to do this, this and this and by the way our privacy rules are changing too', then clearly that space may lose its significance - it's symbolic significance - for users who have enjoyed, thus far, to some degree, a kind of 'free' space."
In the future, Dr Smith believes we may have to start paying for privacy or anonymity on the web.
"So no longer may we see privacy as a fundamental civil right," he says. "It is something that is becoming, I think, commodified, and something that is becoming something you have to purchase.
'Power and money'
Mark Pesce, a futurist and judge for the ABC's New Inventors program, believes companies like Google and Facebook wanting your real name is all about power and money.
"It's the powerful forcing the less powerful to do as they say," he says. "And I don't think it will work because I think the only thing it's going to do is create more value for the pseudonymous base. So ... Google clearly wants to be a reputation broker. And they think that reputation is based around your real name and it is not. It is constructed around the set of social interactions that happen. So they fundamentally misunderstand what's going on there or they're wilfully misunderstanding it. I don't know which."
Mr Pesce says social networking companies like Google needed real names to make transactions legally binding.
"A pseudonym doesn't make them money even though your reputation may be based on your pseudonym and not on your real name," he says. He added that real names conferred a lot of power. "And Google wants to be the arbiter and broker of that power so that they can be the gatekeeper on all the commerce that happens through it."
He says making people use their real names "opened the door" and made it "exceptionally easy" for social networking companies to directly match your every activity with your wallet name. People should be very concerned about this, he added. "[The] first thing you need to ask is 'Why?' Why do they need me to call myself something that I don't want to call myself? What's in it for them? Why do they care?"
What law enforcement reasons?
He argued against former Google CEO and now chairman Eric Schmidt's comments about how it would be in a government and law enforcement agency's best interest to be able to identify who you were online.
"Police don't really have a huge amount of trouble getting to things when they need to," Mr Pesce says. This was recently made evident when police tracked down the person who allegedly strapped a fake bomb to Sydney girl Madeleine Pulver. The person allegedly put the Google Gmail account email@example.com on an extortion note, which police managed to use to track him down.
"If someone misbehaves, hiding behind a pseudonym does not protect [them]. It hasn't historically. Have you ever heard police throw up their hands and say 'Oh my God he used a pseudonym, we can never find him'. This is not about the law, this is not about anarchy and chaos, this is bulls**t about power and money, as it always is."
Going forward, social networking companies were going to make it "harder and harder" to be anonymous and were going to try and close off a number of spaces where you could get away pseudonymously. "And this will only lead to a profusion of spaces that will be extremely accepting of pseudonymity."
He added that there seemed to be an implicit statement via Google and others requiring our real name that we, as humans, had only one identity. "That is simply not true," Mr Pesce says. "You are not the same person at work as you are at home. Period. You are not the same person at work as you are with your friends. Period. I cannot stress this clearly enough. And yet Google is insisting that all of these people are the same. It is not true. You ask any psychiatrist, you ask any psychologist, you ask any person ... we all know this implicitly. So where is the disconnect here around that. Why is it so hard for [social networking companies] to understand?"
Stephen Collins, spokesman for the online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, says that the obvious reason Google wanted our real name was because it was a "massive advertiser" and that having thorough, detailed information on people was "a bonus for them" to be able to give demographics to their advertisers.
"I don't think we'll ever get Google to tell us that for a fact but it seems to be fairly obvious."
He said the Google+ names policy was "kind of strange".
Google 'condescending' and 'belligerent'
"People have been able to adequately function with perfectly useful pseudonyms that even point to fairly easily identifiable real people for a long time. And this is a shift in policy that Google's pretty much failed to justify adequately and where they have tried to give justification has come across pretty much as condescending or belligerent," Mr Collins says. "They could be letting people have pseudonyms so long as those pseudonyms were linkable to a validatable email address."
He believes the names policy of requiring real names was a fight that he couldn't see Google winning in terms of public opinion. "It's such a big transition from what is a well established set of norms on functioning online for people," he says.
He said there wasn't such an outcry over Facebook requiring people to use their real names because the company had made no bones about collecting your data to sell to advertisers and said that they made it relatively easy to set-up multiple accounts for different identities.
"There are any number of people with, for example, multiple Facebook accounts where it's relatively easy for you to have Facebook account A which represents your business personality, Facebook account B that represents your public personality amongst your friends and Facebook account C that represents something else.
'Do no evil' or 'do no deliberately obvious evil'?
He said Google had, for some time, a "do no evil" mentality.
"Google has had this 'do no evil, we're the good guys of the internet community, we're open with data and we share our code and all this other stuff'. And this whole name wars thing seems to be a shift away from them doing stuff for the good of the community versus doing stuff for the good of Google."
It was at the users' expense. "Or in fact it might even end up being at Google's expense. It may be that Google+ doesn't end up being the success that Google would have wanted it to be because they won't allow people to operate using a name of their choice."
"They are making people go through ridiculous hoops to prove that the name that they choose to use is the name that they want to be known by. I think that's pretty mean spirited. I'm watching the path that Stilgherrian is having to go through and it's just backwards."
As for Eric Schmidt's comments on people doing the right thing under their real name, he said: "If you bother to dive into research and the evidence, people have been saying dumb stuff and smart stuff both under their real name and under pseudonyms for a bloody long time on the internet. And Eric Scmidt, or whoever the CEO is now, Larry Page, knows that for sure. It's such a disingenuous statement.
"Google are gathering data because it's good for them to have that data. Not for any other reason. They've essentially dropped the 'do no evil' to 'do no deliberately obvious evil'."
Though Google might be leaning towards being more evil according to Collins, it appears to be open about admitting the additional reasons as to why they are collecting real names.
"So if we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them, we could give them things, we could you know bill them, you know we could have credit cards and so forth and so on, there are all sorts of reasons," Google's Eric Schmidt said at a recent gathering.
But it would appear that goes against what vice president of product management at Google, Bradley Horowitz, has said. In a recent interview he said there was a "big patch" of users "called people that would prefer to use pseudonyms or not their common names in the product".
They had been "vocal, passionate and loud and made some wonderful arguments as to why that would be a great thing in the product", he said. Though there was "no moral opposition" to introducing the option to not use your real name, he said there was nothing to announce and he was sure that it would "disappoint millions".
This reporter is on Twitter: @bengrubb
Be his fan on Facebook: /bengrubb
Copyright © 2011 Fairfax Media
Credit: Reports and photographs are property of owners of intellectual rights.
Seniors World Chronicle, a not-for-profit, serves to chronicle and widen their reach.