July 16, 2011

Google+, Privacy, and Balancing Identity

Blog Update (July 26, 2011): Real Names, Guilt, Self-Censorship, and the Identity War

A few days ago in Google+'s "Identity" Controversy: No Easy Answers, I briefly discussed why identity issues -- especially related to Google's excellent new Google+ product, but by no means restricted to Google -- are so complex. I also explained various aspects of Google's policies regarding identity issues associated with Google+ and Google Profiles as I understand them, based on my recent conversation with Google representatives on this topic.

Reaction to my posting could best be described as "comprehensive." There are lots of strong feelings about identity, anonymity, pseudonymity, and associated issues, and there are many hopes and concerns regarding Google's getting these "right" for the presumably very long-term Google+ project.

There are a variety of reasons to encourage the use of "true names" (or at least "commonly known by names") in social media such as Google+, Facebook, and others.

One advantage of this approach is that it tends to foster polite discourse, since we're more likely to view other participants as actual human beings, not simply as nebulous icon-based artificial "life forms" of one sort or another. All else being equal, this is a highly desirable attribute for a social networking environment.

However, there are other aspects to use of true or real names, which do not necessarily have only positive characteristics.

Businesses might be interested in knowing what their employees are saying publicly about them -- or about other firms, and may be wary of potential or current employees engaging in "unusual" lifestyles.

Insurance companies may find monitoring their policy holders' social postings about personal and health issues -- or "risky" behaviors -- to be advantageous to the companies' underwriting procedures.

Authorities can use social media postings to build dossiers (legally or not) on individuals, with or without court orders.

Politically repressive governments can use identity information to find and target dissidents.

Estranged partners may seek to locate their ex-mates for various negative purposes.

And so on.

Fundamentally, many of these identity issues revolve around personal choice and "need to know" parameters.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was dead wrong when he suggested that having "multiple identities" (on the Net) showed a lack of integrity.

In fact, separation of the personal, public, office, home, and other other aspects of our lives is entirely normal, and most of us would not routinely expect to share details broadly between these categories. This is especially true as we get older, and accumulate more "life baggage" as we go along.

Already in the almost three weeks that I've been using Google+, I've had the experience several times of refraining from commenting on threads where I could have imparted potentially useful information, because I did not feel comfortable drawing attention to myself publicly relative to the topics under discussion. Perhaps 99% of the time I have no problem with being fully identified in my public postings. But that remaining 1% is still a significant concern nonetheless.

This sort of self-censorship regarding legitimate matters, where no fraud or other bad intent is involved, should be a red flag regarding the possibly stultifying effect that "true identity" can bring to some situations.

There are all sorts of identity-related issues to be dealt with on large-scale social media platforms.

Special systems may be employed to handle "celebrity" signups, but often even those names are not globally unique, and it is not necessarily reasonable for celebrities to have priority over anyone else with the same names.

Calls for government-linked ID systems such as NSTIC would go much farther toward verifying identities, but the supposedly "voluntary" nature of these systems would rapidly become de facto required at many major sites, and a host of free speech and other concerns related to government involvement with Internet IDs has made NSTIC and similar proposals understandably highly controversial.

Are there perhaps better balanced ways to approach these issues on social media?

First, we should keep in mind that even when persons claim to use their real or common names on these systems, we don't normally have any way to routinely authenticate or verify those names, and as I noted just above, government involvement in this process could be quite problematic in key respects.

In fact, we know that many completely honest persons concerned about revealing their true identities online frequently simply create accounts and profiles under assumed names that appear real, as pseudonyms for postings that won't be used in any unlawful manner, only as a mechanism to keep discussions regarding personal issues from becoming publicly linked to their true identities.

Ironically, the creation of an environment where users may feel pushed to creating seemingly legitimate false identities, to avoid using obviously "unreal" pseudonyms by which they may be more commonly known online -- but that are much more likely to be deleted in profile purges -- would seem to be a decidedly suboptimal situation both for the firms providing the services and for their users.

We really do need to move beyond the false arguments that any use of anonymity indicates criminal or antisocial behaviors, and acknowledge that there are a range of situations where anonymity or the use of arbitrary pseudonyms should not only be permitted on social media networks, but in fact are fundamental aspects of basic free speech rights, recognized as legitimate back to the founding of this country and beyond.

So the question becomes, how can we encourage the use of real or common names in systems like Google+ and other social media -- for the real benefits that such usage brings -- but still foster a balance that permits other, less tightly identified forms of participation in legitimate ways for honest users who feel a need for such options.

There are various possible approaches, but very briefly, one useful avenue for exploration might be permitting the use of anonymous or arbitrary pseudonyms (that are reasonable and not abusive) either posting-by-posting or "full time," so long as the users involved have provided their real name information on their profiles on a "not for public display" basis.

This would potentially help to at least somewhat allay concerns regarding potential abusive use cases. It could be argued that users likely to abuse are also likely to provide false data even for this "private" identity field -- and this is true. But such users are currently likely to post under potentially even more disruptive fake identities that appear real and are not easily identified as pseudonyms in the first place.

On the other hand, I believe that there is a far larger community of honest and polite users who would prefer to use pseudonyms on postings, who will be unable to make full use (or perhaps any use) of social media where pseudonyms are not permitted, and who would be willing to provide their real name information as a private profile field in exchange for pseudonymous posting capabilities.

This is just a thumbnail description of course. Actually designing and deploying a system to permit and encourage an appropriate balance between full identification and total anonymity is a decidedly difficult task. But if we genuinely care about free speech, we must not permit fears of potential abuse to prohibit the use of anonymity and pseudonymity in furtherance of solving legitimate individual privacy concerns.

As I noted earlier, these concepts are by no means restricted to the world of Google+. They should also apply to Facebook and virtually all other general usage social media platforms.

However, Google+ is newly born, with various features in flux and rapidly evolving. I firmly believe that the people of Google very much want to get these issues right in ways that will encourage optimum usefulness (and fun!) from the environment for the most people possible.

If any firm can find the path to "balancing identity" as I've described, I'm convinced that Google can do so with Google+.

If nothing else, it deserves the old college try -- both for the sake of Google, and for the Internet and global community at large.


Blog Update (July 26, 2011): Real Names, Guilt, Self-Censorship, and the Identity War

Posted by Lauren at July 16, 2011 02:50 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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