Around and around we go with Google+'s real name policy. Sometimes, Google seems ready to reconsider its policy of requiring Google+ social network user to use their "real name," but then Eric Schmidt, Google's Executive Chairman, "justifies" the strict real name policy by saying, "Google+ is completely optional." Sigh. That really misses the point. Rather than rehash the virtues of allowing people to use pseudonyms, I thought I'd ask someone who has both a noteworthy online identity and a long history of having trouble with keeping the public out of her private life: Groklaw's founder Pamela Jones.
For those of you who missed it, Pamela "PJ" Jones started the intellectual property (IP) legal news and analysis Groklaw site to battle the FUD SCO was throwing out about Linux violating its Unix copyrights back in 2003. In the end, SCO was destroyed and it was proven-oh the irony-that Novell actually owned Unix's IP.
In the meantime, though PJ, who's a very private person, was subjected to death threats, invasion of her privacy by junkyard journalists, and even claims that she wasn't a real person at all. There really is a PJ. I've met her, and as it happens her "real name" is Pamela Jones.
Just because she has a real name though and she's a well-known online legal expert and journalist, doesn't mean that she wants Google, or anyone else, drawing a direct line from "PJ" the paralegal and analyst/reporter and the Pamela Jones who lives at X address in Y City. So what does she think of Google's instance of making those connections from online to real-world identities?
In our conversation, Jones said, "I was going to join up with Google+ until I read about the 'real name' policy. I use my real name, actually, but if I have to send a license or some other proof to establish it, it's no different, to me, than a government ID card."
Google hasn't asked for that indeed. When presented with a South Korea's Real-Name verification law, Google dodged around it. The South Korean law requires Web sites with more than 100,000 visitors per day to force their users to use their real names. Google avoided having to comply with that law by stopping Korean YouTube users from posting comments to the site and telling them to upload video from a neighboring country's YouTube site.
That said, Jones has a point, she continued, "I realize there is one hop in the middle, but surely the government can get what they want. And in discovery, as we saw in the Sony v. George Holtz case [a case where Holtz and others jailbroke the Sony PS3's firmware], any company or nutjob who wants to sue you can get it too. They even got info on who visited his YouTube account page and who read what he wrote."
In short, if you're online today, and a company, person, or government agency really wants to track down what you're doing online, generally speaking the courts can support them in their efforts. As Jones says about posting materials online on any site, "People need to think ahead, but some just don't, so they'll have to learn the hard way."
It's not just hackers, activists, journalists, or would be revolutionaries who need to worry about their online privacy. Jones explained, "Having been put through the school of hard knocks by doing Groklaw, I see clearly the danger. But it can happen to anyone--getting a divorce someday? Leave your job and get in a legal dispute about something or other you'd never expect? There's all your stuff on display. And if you are in Google's hands because you are with an organization, it's the organization that owns everything you do and say, not you. *They* can turn it over or remove things at their will, not yours."
Jones worries that while "It's not as bad as China making you go in person to the government to prove who you are to even get an Internet account, but it's getting there."
"Having said that," Jones continued, "I totally also understand what Google faces. Dealing with the international public--all sorts of people are out there, and as Eric Schmidt said, some of them are truly evil -- it's not an easy thing. So it's a complex issue, when I look at it not as whether I should join (NO) or as how Google can keep the place decent enough that they don't get sued every time they blow their nose or because some crazy person wreaked havoc in Google+. Wreak havoc they do, you know. They really do."
So, yes Google does need some control over Google+'s users. Jones is willing to give Google the benefit of the doubt, "I think Google is trying to solve that problem, whatever else their motives might include, and trust me, it's a toughy."
Jones doesn't think, though, that a real name policy is the answer though. Instead, she believes that you keep an online community on track by moderating people's use of the service. Jones said, "You have to get rid of people based on what they *do wrong*, not who they are or even who they pretend to be, unless it's a celebrity. I had to remove "Darl McBride" [Former SCO CEO] as a member more than once, and it was never really him. You have to protect people from that, because a lot of folks try it, just for kicks."
On Groklaw, Jones "let people use whatever [name] they feel they need to. If they want cred, they use one [pseudo]nym. But we have had several [people]who wanted one nym for some stuff and another for another, depending on employment issues, worries about tracking, blah blah."
"That doesn't mean I didn't know, usually, or couldn't find out eventually, but I've left people largely alone to act like adults," Jones continued. If they *don't*, that's when I get into the mix. We've had issues with trolls, using Tor [a network proxy system that makes it difficult to track users on the Internet], and other proxies, and that can make things more complex when you are trying to figure out what is happening."
"So, our strategy was to act on problem *people* as things came up, not problem names. To me what Google does is like spying on the entire population instead of figuring out who is a probable cause person and spying on just that person," said Jones.
Jones admits that "Google may be too big to do what we did. One reason I didn't let Google in, except in a limited way, was because I was trying to stay small enough to be able to handle administrative tasks like this, with a team, of course, but volunteers are different from employees. And for sure, it's a strategy that requires people to handle things as they come up. There is no bot with the necessary discernment."
I'm in complete agreement in Jones on this point. Google needs to back Google+ with a staff that can handle problems in a prompt and friendly manner.
Jones added, "Even us humans don't always know for sure if a person is trolling or just dumb as a rock, no? But you can do a lot, if you try, and if you are committed to anonymous people being able to contribute. Some of our best comments and best contributions were anonymous. No kidding."
Now, if only Google could see it that way, or at least allow pseudonyms, Google could put the real name issue behind it and focus on making the best-possible next generation social network.