Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Google+ real-name issue

I can see the arguments on both sides, and they aren't mutually incompatible.

People want to be anonymous. They want to eg. criticize corporations and governments without necessarily opening themselves up to having government agents showing up at their workplace, or corporate lawyers contacting their employer. More innocuously, they want to have a private side of their life that isn't mixed up with their work and professional life.

Other people want continuity of identity. They want to know that when a given name speaks it's the same person, and that a single person can't trivially have a multitude of identities and turn themselves into a virtual crowd that can drown everyone else out or create the illusion of popular support for a position that lacks such support.

Google wants things tied to a single identity, so they can link activities to individual users in a coherent manner. They want to know what your search history is so they can correctly determine what's popular and what's not.

This can in large part be done by disconnecting your profile from your account. Your account gets verified, making it possible but non-trivial to create multiple accounts. Only Google gets to see your account. You can then create one or more profiles linked to that account. The profile can have any name you want, any other information you want, and the information doesn't need to match from profile to profile. They all tie back to the account so Google can audit and track things, but that link's invisible to the public. If someone thinks you're creating sock-puppet profiles, they can file a complaint and Google can verify whether the profiles are all linked to the same account or not without needing to let the world see the link. People can be assured that a given profile belongs to the same person over time, and a name can build up a reputation without people needing to know the exact person behind the name. The profile's identified by a unique identifier like a profile ID, not by the name, so you can see if a different profile's trying to masquerade as an established name. Most everybody's requirements are met.

The problem comes with anonymity. That depends entirely on Google's willingness (and legal ability) to say to someone showing up demanding the account information behind a profile "Do you have a court order? No? Then come back when you have one.". And that in turn depends on a more basic legal/political issue: requiring someone to show that the person behind the identity has in fact done something actionable before being allowed to demand their identity so legal action can commence. To me that sounds reasonable, and in fact the law technically requires charges to be supported before they can even be filed, but in practice the courts seem reluctant to tell a plaintiff or prosecutor "You haven't supported your charges. Go away until you can.". That's a political problem, one that needs addressed by pressuring the politicians to state explicitly that plaintiffs and prosecutors aren't allowed to file charges or commence legal action without solid evidence to support the claims already being on the table. Until that happens there's no way to both allow anonymity and be able to hold bad actors responsible for their actions, and you can't have a civilized environment without both of those.