A fresh storm has blown into Google’s new Google+ service. The company has been suspending accounts because they contravene Google’s Community Standards – ostensibly to stop fake or spam accounts being created.
This means any name Google has determined is not the person’s real name has resulted in an automatic suspension.
The suspension has also, in some cases, removed access to all other Google services, including email.
Exactly how many users have been affected by this action is not known but it is enough to have mobilised Google+ users to voice their displeasure.
One of the more high-profile suspensions was of Limor Fried, also known as Ladyada or Adafruit Industries.
Fried was recently featured on the front cover of Wired magazine with an article in that issue about DIY electronics.
In addition to selling electronic kits, her business’s website features videos which show how to “hack” electronics to do everything from creating a remote that switches off any television, to creating glowing cufflinks from Apple Mac power buttons.
After a brief outcry, Fried’s account was reactivated with no explanation. Others, it seems, have not been so fortunate.
Say my name
The issue of enforcing “real names” is a contentious one on the internet. In South Korea, for example, there’s a policy requiring all users of sites that allow online comments to be identity-checked.
Google, along with many other internet companies, bowed to this policy on its sites, including YouTube, and blocked people from uploading videos unless they had verified their names.
Facebook also courted controversy recently when the company closed the account of a Chinese commentator called Michael Anti and told him he needed to use the name on his Chinese Government ID card.
The irony of this is that, allegedly, Mark Zuckerberg’s dog has a Facebook account under an alias (yes, this is the real case of “on the internet, nobody knows you are a dog”).
Like all things, the argument is not simple. Governments and services will argue that using a Real Name policy will help cut down spam, internet trolling) and general bad behaviour.
But there are many legitimate reasons for using a pseudonym or “non-de-plume” that are mixed in with people’s profession, identity and safety.
The issue quickly escalates to one of suppression of free speech and, as such, makes its enforcement one more example of companies trying to create an internet that is, in essence, simply commercial.
Another difficulty that Google, in particular, faces with the implementation of this policy is that it does so using a computer program that uses an algorithm to determine what is real and what is fake.
Google’s reliance on automating these decisions is bound to lead to indiscriminate mistakes. Given this can then lead to an automatic suspension of your email account with no warning, the consequences are severe.
This is especially the case with the UN’s recent declaration that internet access is a human right.
Companies such as Google and Facebook face an ongoing public relations juggling act between achieving their commercial goals and providing a service supporting a major social infrastructure.
At the end of the day, it will always be about business, so discussions about Google’s apocryphal mantra – “Don’t be evil” – are moot.